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Central Americans arrive at the Catholic shelter "San Francisco Javier Church", which gives temporary shelter to asylum-seekers from Central America countries released by ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) due to overcrowded facilities, in Laredo, Texas, on June 4, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

Judge blocks Trump policy keeping asylum-seekers locked up

SEATTLE (AP) — 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 Constitution demands that such migrants have a chance to be released from custody.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman ruled Tuesday that people who are detained after entering the country 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 U.S.-Mexico border.

Pechman said that as people who have entered the U.S. and been detained here, they are entitled to the Fifth Amendment’s due-process protections, including “a longstanding prohibition against indefinite civil detention with no opportunity to test its necessity.”

Immigrant rights advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project sued to block the policy, which was due to take effect 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.”

For the past 50 years, the government has given such 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 groups told the court. That gives the asylum-seekers an opportunity to reunite with relatives in the U.S. 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, in violation of their due process rights, 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 decisionmaker to assess the necessity of their detention, and a likelihood of success on the merits of that issue,” the judge wrote.

In her order, Pechman said the government must provide a bond hearing to any immigrant who has demonstrated that they have a credible fear of persecution or torture if returned to their home country within seven days of a request. The asylum-seekers must be released if not granted a hearing within that time frame, she said.

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.

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