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Removing 'Unjust Barrier' to Asylum, Federal Judge Strikes Down Trump Rule Forcing Refugees to Seek Safety Elsewhere

The ruling reaffirmed "that for the last 244 years we have been, and will continue to be, a country ruled by law, not men," said Human Rights First.

As seen through fencing, migrants—including a young child—stand while being detained by Department of Homeland Security police after crossing to the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border barrier, on June 27, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Immigrant rights advocates applauded a Trump-appointed federal judge's rebuke to the White House on Wednesday as the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C. blocked the administration's anti-asylum rule targeting Central Americans.

Judge Timothy J. Kelly on Tuesday evening ruled against President Donald Trump's "third-country requirement," which was imposed last summer and required asylum seekers to first apply for humanitarian aid in other countries they travel through before reaching the southern U.S. border.

"By striking down this rule, Judge Kelly reaffirmed two fundamental principles. The protection of asylum seekers fleeing for safety is intertwined with our national values and that the United States is a country where the rule of law cannot be tossed aside for political whims."
—Claudia Cubas, CAIR Coalition

The administration failed to provide justification for the rule or to explain how it was in the public interest when it bypassed the Administrative Procedure Act and introduced the restriction, Kelly said.

Additionally, the judge criticized the administration for using as its reasoning for the rule a single Washington Post article from October 2018. The article suggested that more asylum-seekers arrived at the border with children after the president signed an executive order ending his policy of separating families in June 2018. 

"This newspaper article alone does not provide good cause to bypass notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures for the reasons cited by Defendants," wrote Kelly. "The article lacks any data suggesting that the number of asylum seekers increased at all during this time—only that more asylum seekers brought children with them."

The legal advocacy group RAICES, which along with Human Rights First and the Capital Area Immigrants' Rights (CAIR) Coalition represented the plaintiffs in the case, called the ruling a "huge win" for refugees.

"By striking down this rule, Judge Kelly reaffirmed two fundamental principles," said Claudia Cubas, litigation director at CAIR Coalition. "The protection of asylum seekers fleeing for safety is intertwined with our national values and that the United States is a country where the rule of law cannot be tossed aside for political whims. For many of the individual asylum seekers we fight alongside, this ruling removes an unjust barrier to security."

Kelly further ruled against the Trump administration's request for a stay on the rule pending an expected appeal from the federal government, saying he saw "no reason" to grant the request.

Kelly's decision represented a final judgement against the administration's policy, the judge said, unlike an earlier ruling from U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar. Tigar last September imposed a preliminary injunction on the rule, citing a "mountain" of evidence that refugees cannot safely seek asylum in Mexico. The U.S. Supreme Court temporarily allowed the administration to move forward with enforcing the restriction after that ruling was handed down. 

"Judge Kelly's ruling is proof that the administration cannot do an end-run around the law," said Hardy Vieux, a senior vice president at Human Rights First. "We do not follow the rule of one capricious man, who treats the law as something on which to trample, on his way to a photo op. We are gratified that the judiciary again reaffirms that for the last 244 years we have been, and will continue to be, a country ruled by law, not men."

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