ACLU files suit to block restrictive new asylum rules

Trump administration regulations would be biggest overhaul to system since 1965

THE AMERICAN CIVIL Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday to block sweeping new asylum restrictions announced by the Trump administration.

The regulations proposed by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security on Monday would effectively prevent most asylum claims by not allowing migrants who pass through another country to get to the US-Mexico border to apply for the humanitarian status.

Massachusetts immigration advocates and attorneys representing asylum seekers say the new rules represent the biggest change in asylum law since 1965, when Congress voted to pass the Immigration and Nationality Act, which included protections for asylum seekers.

Under the new regulations, an applicant must be denied refuge in each country along the way prior to qualifying to apply for asylum in the US. If a Honduran national, for example, were fleeing overland to seek asylum in the US, the migrant would have to first prove that he or she applied for protection with the Guatemalan and Mexican governments. Migrants would also be expected to apply in countries the US deems as safe, but the State Department has deemed most Central American countries unsafe to travel in due to gang violence.

The measure won’t impact people currently within the US borders applying for asylum and is not retroactive. It could, however, impact family members of Massachusetts community members who are waiting to save enough to make the journey to the US-Mexico border as well as the estimated 18,700 asylum seekers already waiting on the Mexico side of the border to be processed, according to Sarah Sherman-Stokes, associate director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Clinic at Boston University.

The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California, argues that the new regulation is a “part of an unlawful effort to significantly undermine, if not virtually repeal, the US asylum system,” and didn’t go through a public process. The suit is asking a district court judge to place a temporary restraining order on the new regulations so they can’t be implemented.

The Trump administration measure disproportionately impacts Central and South Americans, who seek asylum by traveling on foot. Migrants from other regions fly into the United States and make their case for protection then.

If a temporary restraining order is not issued, asylum officers and immigration judges will have to begin enforcing the new standard during first-step interviews where they must assess whether the migrant has “credible fear” of persecution in his or her home country.

Attorney General William Barr, who is named in the ACLU lawsuit, has lauded the new regulation as a way to stop exploitation of the asylum system.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who has filed several lawsuits contesting Trump administration actions toward immigrants, condemned the new rules and voiced support for the lawsuit.

“Ending asylum protections isn’t just cruel, it’s illegal,” said a Healey spokeswoman. “We support the ACLU’s efforts to fight against this heartless action by the Trump administration.”

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition also offered support for the legal challenge.

“We strongly support this lawsuit,” said Marion Davis, a spokeswoman for the organization. “Congress has made it clear that the United States should welcome people fleeing persecution. Trying to force vulnerable migrants to seek asylum in countries that our own State Department warns travelers about, and from which tens of thousands of people are fleeing every month, is utterly insane.”