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Despite having committed no crime, some asylum seekers have been kept in windowless cells for over a year, never allowed outside even a single day

By Miriam Raftery

July 2, 2018 (Washington D.C.) – People who ask for asylum when they arrive at the U.S. border after fleeing violence and persecution have committed no crime, unlike people who cross the border illegally. Yet the Trump administration has been imprisoning asylum seekers for over a year, even after they passed background checks, were found likely to receive asylum, and in some cases, even after a court granted them asylum but the administration was appealing the cases.

Today, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg issued a preliminary injunction to block the Department of Homeland Security from arbitrarily detaining asylum seekers.  The judge ordered a case-by-case review of whether each asylum seeker in the class action suit should be released on humanitarian parole.

Ansly Damus, an ethics teacher from Haiti, is a named plaintiff. He committed no crime, yet has been locked up over a year and a half.

“I have not breathed fresh air or felt the sun on my face,” said Damus, who has not been allowed outdoors even once in over a year.  In Haiti, he spoke out against a government official and was forced to flee violent, political persecution.  He presented himself legally to immigration authorities and asked for asylum. A judge twice agreed to grant him asylum yet the government has kept him, and thousands like him, locked up while appealing his case.

The lawsuit, Damus v. Nielsen, was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights First, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, and Covington 7 Burling LLP.  In each plaintiff’s case, a U.S. asylum officer found their fear of persecution credible and that they had a significant possibility of receiving full asylum.

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

The class action was filed on behalf of asylum seekers denied parole since early 2017 by five U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices:  Los Angeles, El Paso, Detroit, Newark, and Philadelphia.  Over 1,000 asylum seekers are estimated to have been denied parole in those five jurisdictions alone.

Indefinite detention of asylees violates the U.S. Constitution, U.S. immigration law, and homeland Security’s own written policy, according to a press release issued by Human Rights First.

In his ruling, Judge Boasberg relied heavily on an ICE directive that he found the government had violated.  The Judge wrote, “The Parole Directive itself, moreover, states that the detention of asylum-seekers who are neither a flight risk nor dangerous is “not in the public interest” and therefore requires an individualized parole determination as to whether they should be released.” He further noted that routinely denying paroles to asylum seekers “cause irreparable harm to those seeking asylum” adding, “To be clear, in finding that injunctive relief is warranted in this case, this Court is simply ordering that Defendants do what they already admit is required– follow the ICE Directive when adjudicating asylum-seekers’ detention.”

Today's decisions can be found here and here.