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Judge Blocks Administration's Attempt To Restrict Asylum For Domestic, Gang Violence


A federal judge dealt another setback today to the Trump administration's efforts to restrict asylum. The judge ruled that immigration officials at the border cannot turn away people who are seeking asylum because of domestic abuse or gang violence in their home countries. NPR's John Burnett covers immigration, and he joins us now from Austin to talk about all this. Hey, John.


CHANG: So tell us a little more about what the judge said today in his decision.

BURNETT: Well, it means that the federal asylum officers who interview every migrant who ask for protection at the border cannot reject them if they express a fear of an abusive husband or gang members threatening their family. What this is all about is back in June, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions handed down a decision that said, if you're an immigrant who fled domestic violence or gang violence, you don't qualify for protection in the U.S.

CHANG: Right.

BURNETT: The White House had been complaining bitterly, and still is, that asylum seekers abuse the system with frivolous claims, then they disappear into the interior of the country and may or may not show up for immigration court months or years later. But U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, D.C., ruled there's no legal basis for such a categorical ban on these sorts of asylum claims. In strong language, he wrote, it is the will of Congress, not the whims of the executive, that determines the standard for denying asylum.

CHANG: So what does this mean for all the asylum seekers that have been coming to the border? This is something that the administration has called a crisis on the border.

BURNETT: Right. Well, you know, Ailsa, the numbers are striking. Last month, more than 30,000 family members and children crossed the southwest border, most of them asking for asylum.

CHANG: Yeah.

BURNETT: These asylum requests are up 120 percent in 2018 over 2017. I was in Juarez, Mexico, last week reporting just across from El Paso, and I saw asylum seekers in the shelters and waiting at the bridge. And today's court announcement will affect so many of them.

So I was walking back to El Paso across the old Santa Fe Bridge. And I saw four mothers with toddlers sitting on the sidewalk just inside Mexico. They were exhausted, and their kids were dirty.


BURNETT: So this is Cerila Esperanza Jimenez, who was there with her 1-year-old daughter. She and the three other women said they were fleeing extortion rackets in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. And so this ruling clears the way for immigrants like them. I should add it's unclear exactly what the overall impact is going to be because, as it stands, asylum officers at the border already allow most asylum seekers to proceed with their cases. And even after today's ruling, immigration judges can still deny an asylum claim, even those based on domestic violence and gang violence.

CHANG: So how has the Trump administration been responding (laughter) to this ruling?

BURNETT: Right. The Justice Department emailed me a statement that echoes Jeff Sessions' original rationale for this. It says, under laws passed by Congress, asylum is only for those who have a legitimate fear of persecution based on their race, nationality, religion, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. And the government says that does not include crime victims like these.

CHANG: So not exactly taking on the judge's reasoning. This is not the first federal judge who has ruled against the Trump administration on immigration matters. Can you just give us a very brief rundown of all the big decisions so far?

BURNETT: Sure, yeah. This is at least the fourth decision this year that blocks the president's immigration crackdown. Last month, the judge set aside Trump's order that asylum seekers could only present themselves in legal ports of entry, and they wouldn't consider asylum for anybody who crossed illegally, like rafting across the Rio Grande.

In October, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction that stopped the government from ending temporary protected status for immigrants from Salvador, Sudan, Haiti and Nicaragua. In June, the California judge Dana Sabraw told the government, stop separating families at the border and reunite them.

Now there's today's ruling on asylum claims. And government lawyers have not said whether or not they're going to appeal today's ruling.

CHANG: That's NPR's John Burnett. Thanks, John.

BURNETT: My pleasure, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.