By NOMAAN MERCHANT and AMY TAXIN, Associated Press
HOUSTON — The American Civil Liberties Union sued the U.S. government Tuesday over its efforts to prevent immigrants from seeking asylum due to domestic and gang violence in their home countries.
The ACLU’s lawsuit asks a judge to invalidate Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ June 11 decision to restrict the kinds of cases that qualify for asylum. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 parents and children who the ACLU says were wrongly found not to have a credible fear of return.
If Sessions’ memo stands, the lawsuit argues, people “desperately seeking safety will be unlawfully deported to places where they fear they will be raped, kidnapped, beaten, and killed.”
Asylum can be granted to someone who was persecuted in their home country or could be persecuted if forced to return. Thousands of people seek asylum each month at U.S. Customs and Border Protection stations along the southwest border. Most are from Central American countries torn apart by violence, gangs, and corruption.
Top officials in President Donald Trump’s administration say the asylum process is being exploited by immigrants who are counting on passing the initial credible fear screening and being released into the country.
The new lawsuit, filed in Washington, widens the ongoing battle between the ACLU and the U.S. government over immigration policy. A federal judge in San Diego ordered the reunification of thousands of families separated under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy for border crossers, after the ACLU sued there earlier this year.
Sessions’ June memo overruled a 2014 decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals in favor of a Guatemalan woman who fled her husband after what the board called “repugnant abuse.” The board found that the woman was a member of a particular social group eligible for asylum — in this case, married women in Guatemala who could not leave their relationship.
Immigration courts and judges operate under the Justice Department, and Sessions can overrule the board. In this case, he said the board had erred.
Many asylum seekers “are leaving difficult and dangerous situations,” Sessions said in a June speech. “But we cannot abandon legal discipline and sound legal concepts.”
The decision had immediate impact.
Immigration lawyers say people who they expected would pass credible fear screenings began to fail them, and lawyers say immigration judges are signing off on more denials during appeals, effectively ending what could have been a years-long asylum process before it began.
The number of immigrants who didn’t pass credible fear screenings rose in June, according to new statistics the government released Tuesday. Asylum officers denied about 13 percent of cases in June compared with 8 percent in May and an average of 10 percent during the previous fiscal year, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Among the people suing in the ACLU’s lawsuit is a woman identified only by a pseudonym, Grace. The ACLU says Grace’s partner beat her and her children, and sexually assaulted her and her daughter. Once, the ACLU says, her daughter suffered a miscarriage after he attacked her. The lawsuit says the police did not act when she contacted them.
The lawsuit says Grace was found not to have a credible fear of persecution. She remains in detention in Texas.
In a statement issued Tuesday night, a Justice Department spokesman said the department “remains committed to reducing violence against women and enforcing laws against domestic violence, both in the United States and around the world.”
“Our nation’s immigration laws provide for asylum to be granted to individuals who have been persecuted, or who have a well-founded fear of persecution, on account of their membership in a ‘particular social group,'” the statement said. “But most victims of personal crimes do not fit this definition — no matter how vile and reprehensible the crime perpetrated against them.”