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Judge blocks ICE from indiscriminate detention of asylum seekers

In a rebuke of the Trump administration, a federal judge on Monday blocked Homeland Security from systematically holding asylum seekers in detention even after they showed credible evidence they are fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries.

In his 38-page decision, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg found that the government was violating its own policies by ignoring a long-standing directive, which requires the feds to consider the release of asylum seekers while their cases are pending. 

Boasberg ordered the government to stop "engaging in systematic detention," and to follow the 2009 Parole Directive, which requires officials to review on a case-by-case basis whether a person should be given parole.

"To mandate that ICE provide these baseline procedures to those entering our country – individuals who have often fled violence and persecution to seek safety on our shores – is no great judicial leap," wrote Boasberg. "Rather, the issuance of injunctive relief in this case serves only to hold Defendants accountable to their own governing policies and to ensure that Plaintiffs receive the protections they are due under the Parole Directive."

Boasberg's decision comes as part of a lawsuit filed in March by the American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, Human Rights First, and a private law firm, Covington & Burling LLP, on behalf of nine asylum seekers held at five Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices. 

The plaintiffs argued "there was a new reality in place" and that officials were engaging in "de facto detention" by holding immigrants for weeks or months. 

This includes Ansly Damus, a former ethics teacher who came to the United States from Haiti in October 2016. Damus was granted asylum twice, but government lawyers appealed both determinations and the Detroit ICE field refused to release him, so he's spent more than 20 months in detention. 

A second man, identified only as L.H.A. in court documents, came to the United States from Guatemala in May 2016 and has been held in detention ever since. 

Two other men, Abelardo Callol and N.J.J.R. were held until the original complaint was filed, and four other men were held for short periods all after they were found to have a credible fear of persecution. 

According to the lawsuit, five ICE field offices have almost stopped granting parole to asylum seekers since 2017. This includes offices in Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Newark, and Philadelphia. 

While federal lawyers denied that the government did not have a blanket standard, Boasberg was unconvinced. Instead, he said that the plaintiff's case "begins with the most compelling evidence in support of Plaintiffs’ case: the raw numbers. Although Benjamin Disraeli decried 'lies, damn lies, and statistics,' the numbers here are irrefutable." 

Boasberg noted that before the election, ICE offices were granted around 90 percent of parole requests, but during the eight months from February to September 2017, the office in Los Angeles granted parole to only 8 percent of people, while the office in Detroit granted parole to as little as 2 percent. 

However, the remaining three offices — El Paso, Newark and Philadelphia — have refused parole for 100 percent of asylum-seekers. 

"In light of the drastic decline in parole-grant rates at the five ICE field offices, and the affidavits by the named Plaintiffs and their counsel regarding the processing of their parole applications, this Court finds that the asylum-seekers are able to demonstrate that individualized parole determinations are likely no longer par for the course," Boasberg noted. 

The ruling comes as other federal judges have rejected the administration's hardliner immigration policies, including the separation of children from their parents. 

In the last eight months, immigration and Justice Department officials have sought to block asylum seekers, either by altering who is covered by asylum law, or by issuing a "zero tolerance" policy that prosecutes parents for entry and separates them from their children. 

However, federal judges have knocked back many of these attempts. 

In recent weeks, a judge demanded that officials return children to their parents, and gave them 15 to 30 days to do it, and another judge has allowed a separate lawsuit filed by a Guatemalan woman who crossed into Arizona near San Luis to move forward. The woman, 39-year-old Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia, contends that she was forcibly separated from her son for attempting to seek asylum in the U.S. She was eventually reunited with her son, but the lawsuit continues to move forward. 

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The decision could also hinder Trump administration attempts to pivot from the outrage inducing policy of separating families to a plan to hold families together in long-term detention. 

Advocates celebrated the ruling. 

 Michael Tan, a senior attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said that the ruling meant that the Trump administration "cannot use indefinite detention as a weapon to punish and deter asylum seekers." 

"Today’s decision will have an enormous impact on asylum seekers, who pose no risk, and are currently languishing in detention. It is a rejection of the Trump administration’s blanket policy of denying parole to those seeking protection in this country. We hope that our clients and those like them will no longer be wrongly held in prison-like conditions,” said Human Rights First’s Legal Director Hardy Vieux.

 "The United States has long recognized its moral and legal obligation to protect refugees, including the right to seek asylum. People fleeing persecution should never be locked away just for asserting this right. Today's decision recognizes that asylum seekers deserve compassion and the protection of our laws, not punishment," said Eunice Lee, co-legal director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.

Boasberg said the injunction serves only to hold ICE officials "accountable to their own governing policies" and to ensure that asylum seekers "receive the protections they are due." 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A man and his son wait at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry to apply for asylum in the United States on Saturday.

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