In the latest lawsuit against the Trump administration over immigration policies that allegedly violate “immigration law, international refugee law, and our Constitution,” the American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday evening filed a federal lawsuit challenging new Justice Department screening policies that, it says, hamper legitimate asylum claims.
Filed jointly with the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, the ACLU suit calls the new policies, which instruct asylum officers to “generally” deny claims pertaining to domestic violence and gang reprisals, “a naked attempt by the Trump administration to eviscerate our country’s asylum protections.”
“It’s clear the administration’s goal is to deny and deport as many people as possible, as quickly as possible,” said Jennifer Chang Newell, managing attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.
The ACLU represents nine plaintiffs and their children—all but one given pseudonyms for their protection—who were deemed to have credible fear of violence if they were returned to their home countries, but were ordered to leave the United States regardless, as the violence they feared was at the hands of gangs, rather than official government actors.
The suit seeks a declaration that the policies violate U.S. immigration law, as well as the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process, and an injunction while the matter is adjudicated.
“Without an injunction, Plaintiffs and thousands of other immigrants like them desperately seeking safety will be unlawfully deported to places where they fear they will be raped, kidnapped, beaten and killed,” the suit, filed against Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, says.
Sessions’ written policy, which serves as binding precedent for immigration judges, declared that claims by asylum seekers pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors “will not qualify for asylum.”
“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,” Sessions wrote in June.
In July, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released new guidelines that formalized Sessions’ statement, urging them to immediately reject asylum applicants who cited fear of gang violence or domestic abuse. “Claims based on... the members’ vulnerability to harm of domestic violence or gang violence committed by non-government actors will not establish the basis for asylum, refugee status, or a credible or reasonable fear of persecution,” the guidance stated.
But that opinion doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground, advocates say, where the line between gangs and law enforcement is often so blurry as to be indistinguishable, and eliminates the long-held understanding that sexual violence amounts to gender-based persecution, a legitimate basis for asylum.
“The Trump administration is violating U.S. immigration law, international refugee law, and our Constitution,” said Eunice Lee, co-legal director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies. “It’s putting the lives of our plaintiffs and thousands of asylum seekers in grave danger.”
“Mina,” one pseudonymous plaintiff, escaped her home in Honduras after gang members targeted her family in retaliation for helping a friend escape their grasp. The gang murdered her father-in-law, and after members beat Mina so badly that she could not walk, her attackers told her that she would be raped and mutilated if she didn’t leave Honduras.
After entering the U.S. with her husband, Mina requested asylum—but although she was found in an interview to have a credible fear of death if she returned to Honduras, Mina failed her interview. Though she is currently held in a detention center with her husband, Mina could be deported at any time—and likely face death at the hands of the Honduran gang.