SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge ruled late Monday the Trump administration lacks proof of a looming crisis to justify restrictions on asylum relief, handing groups seeking to block the new immigration rules a win.
"To say something is true doesn't make it true," U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar said during a hearing on a motion for a temporary restraining order earlier Monday.
The Justice Department says limiting asylum eligibility to those who enter the United States at official ports of entry will help curb ongoing "abuse" of the asylum system by those who make bogus claims of persecution so they can remain in the U.S.
A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups sued President Donald Trump on Nov. 9 after he issued a proclamation enacting the new restrictions. The plaintiffs seek a court order to block the new rules.
"People's lives are in danger," Lee Gelernt of the ACLU argued in court Monday. "Families are stranded on the Mexico side. Some people have gone through, were apprehended, and have not been allowed to apply for asylum despite a very strong asylum claim."
Opponents say the new restrictions are an overreach of executive power that contradict Congress's intent to let people apply for refugee status regardless of where they enter the country. They also say the government lacks evidence to support its position that the new rules will cut down on phony asylum claims and aid in negotiations with foreign nations.
U.S. Justice Department lawyer Scott Stewart said the new rules will send a signal to Mexico and other nations that the U.S. is serious about addressing the mass migration problem and that they "need to work with us to find a more comprehensive solution."
Tigar questioned how strong the relationship actually is between limiting asylum and negotiating with foreign nations.
Immigrant advocates also dispute the government's claim that a crisis makes the new restrictions necessary. The number of people arrested crossing the border has dropped by more than 1 million since 2000, and the number of migrants caught crossing the border without proper documents in fiscal year 2017 was the lowest since 1972, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics.
The government says many people who cross the border without documents and pass a credible fear assessment do not show up to court hearings. But the plaintiffs point out that 89 percent of asylum seekers appeared at their hearings in fiscal year 2017, according to the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review.
Tigar suggested limiting the number of people eligible for asylum will not necessarily curb phony or illegitimate claims of persecution. It will more likely discourage people from entering the U.S. to seek asylum in general, he said.
Even if evidence justified the Trump administration's position, the plaintiffs say it would not matter because the president cannot overrule an act of Congress.
The Justice Department insists Congress gave the president authority to establish additional limits and conditions for asylum eligibility, such as excluding convicted felons.
But Tigar said those conditions still have to be consistent with the law.
"If this rule is valid, what's left of that expression of congressional intent?" Tigar asked.
The Justice Department also argued that immigrant advocacy groups lack standing to sue because they are not directly impacted the new asylum limits.
But the plaintiffs say their clients cannot challenge the rules themselves because the government holds the position that those in expedited removal proceedings lack the right to have their cases reviewed by a federal judge.
Tigar appeared to agree that some entity should be allowed to challenge the new asylum rules on behalf of immigrants fleeing violence and persecution.
"Who has the right to stand up in court for these people?" Tigar asked.
Seemingly aware that the judge was leaning toward blocking the new restrictions, Stewart urged the judge to limit relief only to the four groups who sued and their clients.
Tigar said that would make those groups and their law firms "very popular" at the southern border, indicating he did not find that request practical.
The judge ended the hearing after about 90 minutes of debate, and issued the restraining order late Monday.
Plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit include East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, Al Otro Lado, Innovation Law Lab, and Central America Resource Center in Los Angeles.
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