Federal Judge Blocks Trump's Asylum Rules, Orders New Interviews for Deported Applicants

A group of Central American migrants -travelling in a caravan- stand next the Mexico-US border fence as they decide where to cross to San Diego County, in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico on December 15, 2018. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. blocked the Trump administration's revised standards for asylum on Wednesday, handing down a sweeping injunction that also requires the government to bring back deported applicants for new interviews.

Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled the administration overstepped its authority when it implemented stricter standards that rejected gang and domestic violence as legitimate grounds for asylum petitions.

The revised standards were first articulated by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions this summer in an immigration court case known as Matter of A-B-. Sessions, citing his authority as the head of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, overturned a precedent that had allowed certain victims of non-state violence to be considered as members of a persecuted class and thus eligible for asylum.

"An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family, or other personal circumstances," Sessions wrote in his ruling. "Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune."

But Sullivan ruled Wednesday that Sessions had exceeded his authority in revising the standards, arguing that "there is no legal basis for an effective categorical ban" on asylum claims based on personal violence.

"It is the will of Congress -- not the whims of the Executive -- that determines the standard for expedited removal, the Court finds that those policies are unlawful," Sullivan wrote in his nationwide injunction, according to NBC News.

Sullivan's ruling comes in the case Grace v. Whitaker, in which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Trump administration on behalf of a group of asylum seekers who had been rejected under the tougher standards. Although the applicants had received positive "credible fear" determinations from asylum officers, they were slated for expedited removal because they failed to meet the higher bar for asylum.

The ACLU hailed Sullivan's ruling as a victory for asylum seekers who face "grave harm" from non-state violence in their home countries.

"This ruling is a defeat for the Trump administration's all-out assault on the rights of asylum seekers," Jennifer Chang Newell, managing attorney of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, said in a statement. "The government's attempt to obliterate asylum protections is unlawful and inconsistent with our country's longstanding commitment to provide protection to immigrants fleeing for their lives."

In addition to blocking the Trump adminstration from applying the stricter standards, Sullivan's injunction requires government to re-hear the cases of asylum seekers who were deported under the new rules.

Immigration authorities have to "return to the United States the plaintiffs who were unlawfully deported and to provide them with new credible fear determinations consistent with the immigration laws," Sullivan ordered.

In a court filing Wednesday, the Justice Department asked Sullivan to stay his ruling because it applies to asylum seekers not represented in case. Meanwhile, the administration said it would continue to seek ways to "restore the rule of law" to the asylum process.

"Under the laws passed by Congress, asylum is only for those who have a legitimate fear of persecution on the basis of their race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group," Justice Department spokesman Steven Stafford said in a statement, according to Fox News. "Attorney General Sessions' ruling in Matter of A-B- was about following that requirement. We are reviewing our options with regard to this ruling, and we will continue to restore the rule of law in our immigration system."