Frontera Fund News Trump Watch

Success! Court Stops Arbitrary Detention of Asylum Seekers


Ansly Damus, an ethics teacher from Haiti, has a textbook case for asylum. He criticized a government official, Benjamin Ocenjac, for terrorizing the population with gangs. Later that day, those same gangs beat Damus, burned his motorcycle and threatened to kill him.

He fled the country and presented himself to immigration authorities in California. An immigration judge granted him asylum twice. But both times, the Trump administration appealed the asylum grants. So Damus has been locked up in a windowless room in Ohio for a year and a half because of the government’s practice of indefinitely detaining asylum seekers.

In March, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit, Damus v. Nielsen, on behalf of Damus and asylum seekers like him. On July 2, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. blocked the Trump administration’s practice of arbitrarily detaining asylum seekers fleeing persecution, torture, or death threats. U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ordered ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to release asylum seekers on parole if they don’t pose a flight risk or a danger to the community. Boasberg demanded that every case in the lawsuit be reviewed to determine whether each asylum seeker should be released on humanitarian parole.

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

Each of the plaintiffs in the case followed the legal protocol for seeking asylum: They presented themselves to immigration authorities and, after going through interviews and screenings, were found to have credible asylum claims. They all presented evidence that they were not flight risks or dangerous. They all applied for “humanitarian parole,” which allows asylum seekers to be released from detention until their hearings.

Yet ICE denied each of their requests, typically with form letters that suggested the department had not sufficiently examined the evidence.

“Today’s decision recognizes that asylum seekers deserve compassion and the protection of our laws, not punishment.” –Eunice Lee, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies

Some of the government’s excuses for denying humanitarian parole are downright absurd. Abelardo Asensio Callol is fleeing persecution by the Cuban government. But ICE denied his application because he supposedly did not demonstrate having an “ongoing relationship” with his sponsor, the person he would live with in the U.S. while awaiting his hearing. Who is Callol’s sponsor? His mom. Another woman fleeing death threats from a Mexican drug cartel was denied asylum because she is a “recent entrant” to the U.S. What asylum seeker isn’t  a recent entrant to the U.S.?

ICE’s denial of parole, often with pathetic excuses, is widespread. The lawsuit targets five ICE offices: Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Newark, and Philadelphia. In 2013, these offices granted about 95 percent of applications for humanitarian parole. Since Trump took office, they’ve granted almost zero percent of parole applications. It’s estimated that these offices alone have denied parole to more than 1,000 asylum seekers with credible claims. That violates ICE’s own policy to release asylum seekers who pose no risk.

“This opinion does no more than hold the government accountable to its own policy,” Judge Boasberg said of the ruling.

Of course, the fight is not over. The ACLU and other advocates will have to continue to be a watchdog for the government, ensuring it follows its own standards, and that it adopts more humane and reasonable policies.

“The United States has long recognized its moral and legal obligation to protect refugees, including the right to seek asylum,” announced Eunice Lee, co-legal director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. “People fleeing persecution should never be locked away just for asserting this right. Today’s decision recognizes that asylum seekers deserve compassion and the protection of our laws, not punishment.”