SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Mere hours after a presidential directive limited asylum relief for border crossers, immigration advocates filed a federal lawsuit Friday to block the Trump administration from suspending asylum rights for those who cross the border outside of a port of entry.
"This action undermines the rule of law and is a great moral failure because it tries to take away protections from individuals facing persecution – it’s the opposite of what America should stand for,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, in a statement Friday.
The ACLU represents four immigrant advocacy groups that filed suit. The plaintiffs include East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, Al Otro Lado, Innovation Law Lab, and Central America Resource Center in Los Angeles.
President Donald Trump's proclamation, along with a new Justice Department rule, targets a large swath of Mexican and Central American immigrants who could historically apply for asylum regardless of where they enter the country.
In justifying the new asylum restrictions, the Justice Department cited a backlog of more than 136,000 immigration court cases involving arrivals from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Trump stated in his proclamation that the directive intends to address "a substantial number of aliens primarily from Central America who appear to have no lawful basis for admission into our country."
The directive comes after several weeks of presidential fuming over a caravan of at least 3,500 people who left Honduras in mid-October to seek asylum in the U.S. The president called the immigrants dangerous, accused some of being "Middle Easterners," threatened to cut off funding to nations that failed to stop the caravan, and sent U.S. troops to the border.
According to the lawsuit filed Friday, the new asylum rules contradict a "clear congressional command" established in the Refugee Act of 1980, which was later incorporated into U.S. immigration law.
The law allows those with a credible fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, politics, or membership in a particular group to apply for refugee status in the United States. Those granted asylum can become legal permanent residents and apply for U.S. citizenship.
“Congress took care to ensure that noncitizens within our country or at the border would be able to apply for asylum, regardless of their manner of arrival at or entry within our borders," the plaintiffs say in their 18-page complaint.
According to the plaintiffs, limiting asylum relief to those who appear at official border crossings poses life-threatening challenges for refugees fleeing persecution.
Asylum seekers must wait four to six weeks at an official border crossing in Tijuana, and the delays can be deadly for those vulnerable to violence and exploitation as they wait to be processed, according to the complaint.
"Asylum seekers turned back from a port of entry have been raped, beaten, and kidnapped and held for ransom by cartel members waiting outside," the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs say border patrol agents also use threats, intimidation, physical force and deliberate misinformation to turn refugees away.
According to the plaintiffs, the president overstepped his authority by enacting the new restrictions, and the new rules violate the Immigration and Nationality Act and Administrative Procedure Act.
They say the new rules frustrate their missions of assisting refugees and force them to divert scarce resources to adjust to and understand the new policy.
The plaintiffs seek preliminary and permanent injunctions to block the Trump administration from enforcing the new asylum restrictions.
They are represented by Jennifer Chang Newell of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project in San Francisco.
In a joint statement, Homeland Security and the Justice Department said the president has the power to block aliens from entering the country in the interest of national security, and that the government "should not have to go to court to defend the president's clear legal authority."
The departments added that legitimate asylum seekers are "just as eligible today as they were before this order was issued – they simply have to go to one of our ports of entry to apply."
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