The Slatest

Federal Judge Strikes Down Trump Rule Shutting Out Central American Asylum-Seekers

A migrant carrying a toddler stands in front of the border wall that divides New Mexico, United States, with Ciudad Juarez, state of Chihuahua, Mexico.
A migrant carrying a toddler stands in front of the border wall that divides New Mexico with Ciudad Juarez, in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Herika Martinez/Getty Images

A federal judge struck down late Tuesday night the Trump administration immigration policy that disallowed Central American migrants from applying for asylum upon arrival at the U.S. Southern border, ruling the government did not provide sufficient justification for the change in policy last July. Under the Trump-era border policy, the White House effectively barred asylum-seekers from even applying for protection at the U.S. border if they had not first applied for asylum in the countries they traveled through to get to the U.S. The sudden change was intended to dramatically curtail the number of migrants coming in to the U.S.; the Trump administration argued that Central American migrants were using the asylum rules to live and work in the U.S. while their case was being evaluated.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, found the administration’s implementation of the so-called third-country asylum rule unlawfully bypassed the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires the government to inform American citizens of changes and give them sufficient time and opportunity to respond to such a change. “There are many circumstances in which courts appropriately defer to the national security judgments of the Executive,” Kelly wrote in his opinion. “But determining the scope of an APA exception is not one of them.”

The case against the government brought by nonprofit groups representing immigrants and asylum-seekers argued that the Trump administration policy marked substantial and unwarranted change to the Immigration and Nationality Act, a decades-old federal law passed by Congress that grants nearly anyone arriving on U.S. soil the right to at least apply for asylum. At the time of the change, the Trump administration provided essentially no justification for the sudden change, other than to say if the government abided by the normal public comment period as required by the Administrative Procedure Act it would result in a surge of migrants before the change went into place.

In his 52-page opinion, Kelly found the Trump administration’s underlying argument flimsy and cherry-picked from a single newspaper article. “The article does little if anything to support Defendants’ prediction that undertaking notice-and-comment rulemaking would have led to a dramatic, immediate surge of asylum applicants at the border,” Kelly wrote. “And other articles from the administrative record that Defendants cite either do not support, or even undermine, their prediction of such a surge.”

“Asylum filings nearly quadrupled between 2014 and 2019,” according to the Washington Post, “and fewer than 20 percent of Central American applicants prevail in immigration court.” Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services hailed the ruling in a tweet: “The Trump admin’s third country transit ban - barring asylum for crossing through a 3rd country - was JUST thrown out effective immediately. A HUGE win for asylum seekers.”