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ACLU lawsuit alleges ICE field office in El Paso among those holding asylum seekers without cause

The plaintiffs in the case include a Haitian ethics teacher fleeing political persecution, a Honduran national who alleges persecution for being gay and asylum seekers from Mexico, El Salvador, Venezuela and Cuba.

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The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the El Paso field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, along with four other ICE field offices, for allegedly holding asylum seekers in detention without cause.

The ACLU stated in the suit that all of the plaintiffs passed their initial "credible fear" exams – the first step in the asylum process to determine if an applicant has a legitimate case. But despite having sponsors in the U.S. willing to provide housing, the federal government has continued to hold them instead of granting them humanitarian parole, according to the suit. They are represented by the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, Human Rights First, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and Covington and Burling LLP, a law firm based in Washington, D.C. 

The plaintiffs in the case include a Cuban national who fled that country's communist regime; a Haitian ethics teacher fleeing political persecution; a Honduran national who alleges persecution for being gay; and a Venezuelan who was beaten by armed groups seeking "to eliminate opposition to the Venezuelan government.” Others plaintiffs include several fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, including a man who's been detained for nearly two years, and three Mexicans fleeing cartel-related violence in that country. 

“The Trump administration wants to make life so miserable for asylum seekers that they give up and return to their home countries, even at the risk of torture or death,” Michael Tan, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement. “The administration is wielding indefinite detention as a weapon to deter future asylum seekers, which is both cruel and unconstitutional.”

Other field offices named in the lawsuit include Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark and Philadelphia. The El Paso office covers West Texas and New Mexico. The ACLU states that in just those five offices, more than 1,000 asylum seekers have been denied parole since President Donald Trump took office.

"It’s ICE policy not to comment on pending litigation," ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa wrote in an email to the Tribune.

The legal action comes as the administration seeks to fix what it has claimed are loopholes in the current system that open it up to abuse and fraud. In October, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions urged Congress to change the current process of seeking asylum.

“The system is being gamed. The credible fear process was intended to be a lifeline for persons facing serious persecution,” he said during a speech to the Executive Office for Immigration Review in Virginia. “But it has become an easy ticket to illegal entry into the United States.”

The El Paso-based Borderland Immigration Council, a group of attorneys and community organizers who advocate for immigrants, said the case could offer relief to about 2,000 more detainees being held in El Paso and Sierra Blanca, Texas, or in the New Mexican counties of Otero and Cibola.

The lawsuit also charges that the asylum seekers are being held to deter others from coming to the United States. The filing states that the D.C. district court previously issued an injunction against deterrence-based policies.

The El Paso field office has been under the national spotlight recently after the detention of Mexican reporter Emilio Gutiérrez and his son Oscar in December. The pair had been living and working in the county legally since first seeking asylum in 2008. But during a visit with ICE officials while Gutiérrez' asylum appeal was pending that their attorney describes as routine, the two were detained and have been in detention in El Paso ever since. The National Press Club and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, have since asked ICE officials to release the Gutiérrez family.

Martin Mendez Pineda similarly fled Mexico after reporting on corruption. He arrived in El Paso and sought asylum last April, but his prolonged detention eventually forced him to give up on the case and return to Mexico, his attorney said.

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