US judge blocks Trump plan to keep asylum seekers locked up

US judge says asylum seekers are entitled to bond hearings under the constitution.

    Migrants stand while being detained by Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security police after crossing to the US side of the US [File: Mario Tama/Getty Images]
    Migrants stand while being detained by Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security police after crossing to the US side of the US [File: Mario Tama/Getty Images]

    A federal judge in Seattle on Tuesday blocked a Trump administration policy that would keep thousands of asylum seekers locked up while they pursue their cases, saying the United States Constitution demands that such migrants have a chance to be released from custody.

    US District Judge Marsha Pechman ruled late on Tuesday that people who are detained after entering the country between official ports of entry to seek protection are entitled to bond hearings. Attorney General William Barr announced in April that the government would no longer offer such hearings, but instead keep them in custody. It was part of the administration's efforts to deter a surge of migrants at the US-Mexico border.

    Pechman said that as people who have entered the US, they were entitled to the Fifth Amendment's due-process protections, including "a long-standing prohibition against indefinite civil detention with no opportunity to test its necessity".

    Immigrant rights advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project sued to block the policy, which was due to take effect on July 15.

    "The court reaffirmed what has been settled for decades: that asylum seekers who enter this country have a right to be free from arbitrary detention," Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said in a written statement.

    "Thousands of asylum seekers will continue to be able to seek release on bond, as they seek protection from persecution and torture," Adams added. 

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    The Justice Department did not immediately return an email seeking comment from Reuters news agency, but the government was expected to quickly appeal the decision, as Pechman noted in her order.

    In place for decades

    For the past 50 years, the government has given asylum seekers bond hearings before immigration judges where they can argue that they should be released because they are not flight risks and pose no threat to the public, the immigrant rights groups told the court. That gives the asylum seekers an opportunity to reunite with relatives in the US and to find lawyers to handle their asylum claims, making them more likely to succeed.

    The new policy would end that practice, keeping between 15,000 and 40,000 immigrants in custody for six months or more without requiring the government to show that their detentions are justified, the groups argued. Typically, close to half of asylum seekers who are granted bond hearings are released from custody.

    "The Court finds that Plaintiffs have established a constitutionally-protected interest in their liberty, a right to due process which includes a hearing before a neutral decision-maker to assess the necessity of their detention, and a likelihood of success on the merits of that issue," the judge wrote.

    Pechman, who heard arguments last Friday, said the government must provide a bond hearing within seven days of a request by any immigrant who has demonstrated that they have a credible fear of persecution or torture if returned to their home country. The asylum seekers must be released if not granted a hearing within that timeframe, she said. 

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    Pechman also said the burden must be on the government at such hearings to show that keeping asylum seekers in custody is necessary because they pose a flight risk or a danger to the public.

    Outrage over detention centre conditions 

    President Donald Trump has said he is determined to end the "catch and release" of migrants at the border. He has also called the asylum system broken, saying that some take advantage of it with frivolous claims.

    The lawsuit, a nationwide class action, began as a challenge to the separation of family members at the border under Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy. Its legal claims have morphed as the government's policies have shifted.

    Pechman first issued an order in April saying that the government must give the asylum seekers hearings within a week, saying delays in holding such hearings violated their rights. Eleven days later, the attorney general issued a decision finding that they weren't entitled to bond hearings at all.

    The Justice Department argued that the policy is a legitimate interpretation of a federal law that says if immigration officers determine immigrants have a credible fear of persecution, they "shall be detained for further consideration of the application for asylum".

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    An overcrowded fenced area holds families at a Border Patrol Centralized Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, on June 11, 2019 [Handout/Office of Inspector General/DHS/Reuters] 

    The government also argued that even without bond hearings, detained asylum seekers would still have another avenue for release: a request to an immigration officer for parole. Such requests are rarely granted under the Trump administration, however, and the immigrant rights groups said they are not a substitute for bond hearings before independent fact-finders.

    The ruling came as migrants, politicians and rights groups expressed outrage over the conditions of migrant detention centres along the border. 

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    A group of Democratic politicians visited two centres in Texas this week and described "horrifying" conditions.

    A government watchdog also warned of "dangerous overcrowding" in which hundreds of migrants were either held outside or kept in cells packed at five times their capacity.

    In June, immigration lawyers raised alarm over squalid conditions facing hundreds of children at another facility in Clint, Texas

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies