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Judge blocks Trump administration from arbitrarily detaining asylum seekers
Immigrant families seeking asylum wait in line at the central bus station after they were processed and released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Eric Gay/AP

A federal court delivered another sharp rebuke of the Trump administration’s immigration policies on Monday, this time blocking the process of arbitrarily detaining asylum seekers.

Judge James Boasberg issued an immediate injunction against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ruling in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union and the asylum seekers it represents in a lawsuit against the government.

In his ruling, Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said the government was breaking its own internal rule, a directive issued by ICE in 2009 that said individuals who are being considered for asylum should be released while their case is adjudicated. Individuals who are found to have a “credible fear” of persecution at home should be considered for release, according to the policy.

Boasberg found that in the cases of more than 1,000 asylum seekers — many of whom have been jailed for years without such evaluations — the government has not honored that policy.

“This Opinion does no more than hold the Government accountable to its own policy, which recently has been honored more in the breach than the observance,” Boasberg wrote in his ruling. “Having extended the safeguards of the Parole Directive to asylum seekers, ICE must now ensure that such protections are realized.”

The challenge was initially brought by the ACLU and other groups last March after it was discovered that detention rates had skyrocketed to 96% at five major Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices across the U.S. as a result of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration. (For reference, the Washington Post reported that the detention rate for asylum seekers was less than 10% in 2013.)

As a result of Monday’s ruling, those offices — which are located in Detroit, El Paso, Texas, Los Angeles, Newark, New Jersey, and Philadelphia — must immediately grant hearings or else release the hundreds of asylum seekers currently being held in government custody.

“This ruling means the Trump administration cannot use indefinite detention as a weapon to punish and deter asylum seekers,” Michael Tan, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement.

The suit was brought on behalf of a group of nine asylum seekers, all of whom had been given and passed a credible fear interview and had proven that they were not a flight risk, by Human Rights First, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and the Covington & Burling law firm, in addition to the ACLU.

One of the named plaintiffs was Ansly Damus, a former ethics teacher who had been forced to flee his native Haiti after he spoke out against the government. He was determined to have a credible fear of persecution and was granted asylum by an immigration judge — twice — but had remained in detention as the government appealed his grants of asylum. According to an ACLU press release, Damus said that ICE agents had not allowed him to go outside in over a year.

“I have not breathed fresh air or felt the sun on my face, and I never know if it is cold or hot outside, if the sun is out, and if the seasons are changing,” Damus said, according to the release.

Hardy Vieux, the legal director for Human Rights First, said in a statement that Monday’s decision will have “an enormous impact” on asylum seekers like Damus, 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,” Vieux said. “We hope that our clients and those like them will no longer be wrongly held in prison-like conditions.”

Boasberg denied a motion by the government to have the suit dismissed. The case will continue through the courts while the injunction is in place.