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Judge Backs Feds’ Promise of Faster Asylum Decisions

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - A federal judge this week approved a class action settlement promising speedier processing times for detained immigrants who say they fear returning to their nations of origin.

Lead plaintiff Marco Antonio Alfaro Garcia sued the Department of Homeland Security and Citizenship and Immigration Services in April 2014 for violating the Administrative Procedure Act.

The plaintiffs say immigrants facing deportation can spend more than a year in the asylum process, despite a law requiring the government to decide within 10 days whether refuge-seekers reasonably fear persecution in their home nations.

"I think we really see this as a very big victory for individuals in ICE custody who now have some assured timeframe in keeping with what the law requires to have their determinations," plaintiff class attorney Claudia Valenzuela, of the National Immigration Justice Center, said.

Valenzuela said her firm has seen many refuge-seeking immigrants withdraw their legitimate claims for protection because of the "limbo status" they were stuck in indefinitely.

"We have seen many individuals who had either been ignored or for whatever reason turned away on seeking asylum but returned again because they continued to face danger in their countries[when they] to tried to go back," Valenzuela said.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately return a request for comment.

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers approved the settlement , along with an award of $327,000 in attorneys' fees and costs for the plaintiffs, on Tuesday.

"The attorneys' fees and costs provision appears to have taken into consideration the right of plaintiffs to seek an award of fees that would be substantially higher than the amount agreed to, the risks of trial and all other relevant factors," Rogers wrote in her Oct. 27 order.

The settlement, which goes into effect Nov. 26, requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement to refer immigrants with fear claims to the government's asylum division within an average of five days.

And the government must reduce the average time it takes to process reasonable fear determinations to less than 10.5 days.

Under the settlement terms, the government must also furnish monthly progress reports to the plaintiffs' attorneys, the ACLU and National Immigration Justice Center to ensure compliance.

Any further disputes will be referred to mediation with Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler, who oversaw settlement negotiations between the parties. If disputes are not resolved within 45 days, attorneys may seek to enforce or terminate the agreement through district court action.

If the government fully complies with the settlement's requirements for three years without incident, the agreement will be terminated.

Members of the plaintiff class include all persons detained by the Department of Homeland Security subject to deportation that have expressed fear of returning to their home nations and have not received a determination within 10 days.

"Based on all the facts and circumstances, the court finds that settlement is fair, reasonable, adequate, and in the best interest of the members of the plaintiff class," Rogers wrote.

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