Immigrants Take Feds to Court Over Stricter Asylum Rules

A group of asylum seekers cross the border between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, on July 4, 2019. (Mark Lambie/The El Paso Times via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – A collection of asylum seekers and immigration groups sued the Trump administration on Friday, claiming it violated the Constitution and federal law by making changes to asylum rules at two detention facilities in Texas.

In a 67-page complaint filed in Washington, D.C., federal court, three families who sought asylum and are held at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, take aim at rules changes the administration made to the process for claiming asylum.

The first rule cuts back on the amount of time before a person who plans to claim asylum faces a “credible fear” interview, during which a federal immigration official determines whether the person has shown a “significant possibility” that they will be eligible for asylum and can remain in the country. While asylum seekers used to have at least 48 hours to prepare for their interview, the new rule issued in July gives them just one calendar day from the time they arrive at the detention center.

Also in July, the administration issued rules that generally deny requests to delay credible fear interviews unless there are extraordinary circumstances and do away with in-person legal orientations for people who are detained.

The changes to the wait time and the procedure for delaying interviews have been implemented at both the Dilley detention center and at another facility in Karnes City, Texas, while the rule on legal orientations just applies to Dilley, according to the complaint. Dilley is the largest family detention center in the country.

Together, the groups and asylum seekers say these rules make it much harder for people to succeed on their asylum claims at these facilities, which house women and children. This could lead to people being unfairly denied asylum and being sent back to places where they will be in danger, according to the lawsuit.

“If the defendants remove these parents and children – and hundreds like them each month – they will face significant risks of persecution, violence and death,” the complaint states. “They may also be unable to return to the United States after removal, given the unstable situation they will be returned to in their country of origin, their existing trauma, lack of financial resources, and/or immigration laws.”

None of the asylum seekers who brought the suit passed their credible fear interviews, though the complaint blames this on the compressed timeline they faced under the new rules. One of the women had a toothache during her interview that prevented her from meaningfully participating, while the others say they did not have enough time to prepare or consult with attorneys.

In addition to violating the Administrative Procedure Act, federal immigration law and the First Amendment, the groups and asylum seekers say the rules are invalid because the man who issued them, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli, was unlawfully appointed.

Cuccinelli took over USCIS after President Donald Trump forced former Director Lee Francis Cissna to resign. Under a federal law that dictates how acting directors take on their roles, the groups say USCIS Deputy Director Mark Koumans should have taken over for Cissna, but that Trump worked around this by making a new office just for Cuccinelli.

A spokesperson for USCIS declined to comment on the suit, citing department policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

The groups who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the asylum seekers include Democracy Forward Foundation, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services, and the law firm Proskauer Rose.

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