Federal judge overturns White House policy on asylum seekers fleeing domestic or gang violence

A Washington D.C.-based judge ruled the policy, which was implemented by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June, went against standards set forth in the Immigration and Naturalization Act.

Immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin, center, talks to Nicaraguan asylum seekers while they wait for Customs and Border Protection agents to bring a wheelchair for one of them on the U.S. side of the international bridge in Hidalgo on Sept. 15, 2018.
Immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin, center, talks to Nicaraguan asylum seekers while they wait for Customs and Border Protection agents to bring a wheelchair for one of them on the U.S. side of the international bridge in Hidalgo on Sept. 15, 2018.  Reynaldo Leal

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comment from Austin-based immigration attorney Jackie Watson

A federal judge on Wednesday struck down the bulk of a recent White House policy that made it more difficult for victims of domestic and gang violence to seek asylum in the United States.

U.S. District Judge Emmett G. Sullivan of Washington D.C. ruled that the policy, which was implemented by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June, was "arbitrary and capricious" and went against standards set forth in the Immigration and Naturalization Act.

Sullivan said the 12 asylum seekers who challenged the new policy "alleged accounts of sexual abuse, kidnappings, and beatings in their home countries during interviews with asylum officers.” Sullivan said they were unlawfully deported and ordered them brought back for new credible fear interviews, which are required for asylum claims.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

When Sessions announced the policy change, he said that “The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes — such as domestic violence or gang violence — or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim.”

In his memorandum, Sessions cited a 2015 asylum denial concerning a Salvadoran woman who claimed she was fleeing violence. That case was overturned, but Sessions argued the denial "was wrongly decided" and should not have been used as a legal precedent because the Board of Immigration Appeals merely cited another case that involved married Guatemalan women who were trapped in abusive relationships.

In his ruling, Sullivan disagreed, saying that the Trump administration's new policies on asylum seekers “are inconsistent with the intent of Congress as articulated in the [Immigration and Nationality Act]."

The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.

“Judge Sullivan’s decision ensures that our asylum system remains open to refugees at our border, including those fleeing domestic violence and gang violence,” Eunice Lee, the co-legal director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, said in a statement. “These individuals raise legitimate claims under U.S. and international law, and have an unequivocal right to seek asylum.

Austin-based immigration attorney Jackie Watson hailed the ruling, saying immigration attorneys will now be able to focus more on their clients’ asylum claims without having to argue against, or appeal, asylum denials that were handed down because of the Sessions’ memo.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“It’s a faster way to get to us to where we need to be rather than going through the courts,” she said. Sessions "just scooped up all these [Bureau of Immigration Appeals] decisions he didn’t like and overturned them, and essentially that’s rulemaking” by circumventing Congress.