The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Judge strikes down Trump administration effort to deny asylum for migrants fleeing gang violence, domestic abuse

Migrants wait in line for food as some play soccer at a camp containing hundreds of people who arrived at the U.S. border from Central America in a caravan intending to apply for asylum. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

A federal judge on Wednesday blocked several Trump administration policies that made it more difficult for victims of gang and domestic violence to seek asylum in the United States.

In a 107-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan wrote that the policies were “arbitrary and capricious and contrary to law” and ordered the government to cease their implementation.

Sessions: Victims of domestic abuse and gang violence generally won’t qualify for asylum

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, representing 12 adults and children who had sought asylum in the United States because they said they were sexually abused, beat and kidnapped in their home countries.

Each was denied asylum — even though asylum officers felt their accounts were sincere, according to the ruling — based on the new policies restricting who qualifies. Some already had been removed, though Sullivan decreed they should be brought back to the United States and allowed to make their case again.

President Trump wants to reduce legal and illegal immigration, but apparently has no qualms about scapegoating every immigrant in the process. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

In their lawsuit — which focused on migrants who had been placed in fast-track deportation proceedings — the advocacy organizations argued the new policies prevented migrants from getting a fair hearing on whether they could stay in the United States, and that thousands of people could potentially be affected. The groups hailed Sullivan’s ruling Wednesday.

“This ruling is a defeat for the Trump administration’s all-out assault on the rights of asylum seekers. The government’s attempt to obliterate asylum protections is unlawful and inconsistent with our country’s long-standing commitment to provide protection to immigrants fleeing for their lives,” said Jennifer Chang Newell, managing attorney of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who argued the case.

Steven J. Stafford, a Justice Department spokesman, said, “We are reviewing our options with regard to this ruling, and we will continue to restore the rule of law in our immigration system.”

To qualify for asylum, foreign nationals must establish that they have a fear of persecution in their home country based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or “membership in a particular social group.” That broad category in the past had included victims of domestic violence and other abuse.

In June, though, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions began the process to change that, issuing a broad decision in an asylum case that reversed a grant of asylum to a Salvadoran woman who fled her home country and alleged her husband abused her.

In his opinion, Sessions wrote, “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum” and that an asylum applicant must generally demonstrate persecution because of affiliation with a “particular social group.”

Sessions told immigration judges, whose courts are part of the Justice Department, his decision “restores sound principles of asylum and long-standing principles of immigration law.” He also said it would help reduce the growing backlog of 700,000 court cases, more than triple the number in 2009.

Two days later, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued guidance to asylum officers on how to apply Sessions decision as they assessed the claims of those seeking safety in the United States. Together, the new policies generally made it harder to seek asylum, particularly in the early stage of the process where applicants must demonstrate they have “credible fear” to stay.

Sullivan took aim at much of the new guidance. He wrote there was “no legal basis for an effective categorical ban on domestic violence and gang-related claims,” and he specifically invalidated the general rule that asylum officers should dismiss such claims in assessing applicants’ credible fear claims.

Sullivan also blocked the requirement that applicants alleging harm by someone other than a government must “show the government condoned the private actions or at least demonstrated a complete helplessness to protect the victim.”

Sullivan, who made a splash Tuesday at the sentencing of President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, had earlier in the case halted a deportation in progress and threatened to hold Sessions in contempt after learning the administration had begun removing a woman and her daughter while a court hearing appealing their deportations was ongoing. He ordered the government Wednesday to provide new written guidance on making credible fear determinations to comply with his ruling.

Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.