Honduras Deportation Case Tests Trump Asylum Policy

WASHINGTON (CN) — Two weeks after the Supreme Court cleared the way for the Trump administration to tighten asylum restrictions, immigration lawyers pleaded with a federal judge Wednesday to stop the deportation of a Honduran woman and her 12-year-old son.

Back in Honduras, the partner of the woman in question has already been murdered, as has that man’s father and two of his brothers, ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said.

Gelernt said these killings raise legitimate safety concerns, so orders to deport his clients, along with a third plaintiff from Cuba, should be put on hold.

But the government argued this afternoon that U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly has no authority to issue such a stay as Congress strictly limits the power of the judiciary to intervene in the immigration system. 

“We know quite well that these are the claims that people make in the hundreds, the thousands, the tens of thousands,” Justice Department attorney Scott Stewart said.

Kelly is himself a Trump appointee. 

At the hearing, Stewart called it misleading to present the case as a lifeline for just three plaintiffs, since the ACLU and National Immigrant Justice Center will likely present additional plaintiffs with similar claims. As to the particular facts of this case, Stewart also emphasized that immigration officials already questioned the three plaintiffs in credible-fear proceedings at the border and deemed them ineligible for asylum. 

Stewart argued that President Donald Trump’s asylum policy gives urgent asylum claims priority, and that the restrictions are necessary to ensure that neighboring countries do their part so that the burden does not fall entirely on the U.S.

Gelernt made the point earlier in proceedings, however, that South American countries that immigrants most often cut across on their way to the U.S. do not have functioning immigration systems in place to properly adjudicate asylum claims. As for why his clients failed to pass their credible-fear hearings at the border, Gelernt said, in the case of the Honduran woman, officials rejected her claim in “truncated” proceedings based on a legal matter unrelated to her fear of persecution. 

Gelernt called it incumbent on the Department of Homeland Security to assess factors at play on the ground in countries like Honduras before issuing new policies.  

He asked Kelly to consider how, for example, a minor child traveling alone through Mexico is expected to navigate a complex immigration process and file a claim within the 30-day deadline required under Mexican law. 

Wednesday’s hearing comes two weeks after the Supreme Court ruled on Sep. 11 to lift a temporary ban on the asylum policy that had been enacted by a federal judge in California. Judge Kelly told the government that he did not know that he could “divine” anything from the Supreme Court’s order, in which there were no individual plaintiffs.

Acknowledging the danger the three plaintiffs may face, Kelly also suggested he may be powerless to intervene.

“It could be that Congress has given me nothing. I mean it could be,” Kelly said.

Gelernt replied: “I don’t think it would be constitutional, to say you’re just going to sit up there and ruminate.”

Kelly admitted it would be highly strange, with the lawyer then arguing that the government had cited no case that suggests the judge lacks the authority to block the plaintiffs’ deportation. 

Kelly said he plans to issue an order expeditiously following the arguments Wednesday but did not give a specific timeline. 

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