WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, Human Rights First, and Covington & Burling LLP filed a federal lawsuit today challenging the Trump administration’s arbitrary detention of asylum seekers fleeing persecution, torture, or death in their countries of origin.
All the plaintiffs have passed credible fear screenings — meaning a U.S. asylum officer has determined their fear of persecution is credible, and that they have a significant possibility of receiving full asylum. Government policy stipulates that asylum seekers be granted humanitarian parole as they await their immigration proceedings, provided they meet a series of stringent requirements. Instead, the Trump administration is categorically jailing them indefinitely, in violation of the Constitution, U.S. immigration laws, and the Department of Homeland Security’s own written policy.
“Our clients are innocent and harmless. They’ve come here seeking relief from horrors they face in their homelands.” said Freda Levenson, Legal Director at the ACLU of Ohio. “Yet they’ve been condemned to treatment by the U.S. government that is nothing short of cruel. Mr. Damus — like countless others — has been locked-up for over a year, with no sign of release. We are challenging these arbitrary detentions so that asylum seekers who pose no threat have the opportunity to live freely.”
“The Trump administration wants to make life so miserable for asylum seekers that they give up and return to their home countries, even at the risk of torture or death,” said Michael Tan, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “The administration is wielding indefinite detention as a weapon to deter future asylum seekers, which is both cruel and unconstitutional.”
The class-action lawsuit targets five U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices that have almost entirely stopped granting parole since early 2017. Those offices are Detroit (which covers Michigan and Ohio), El Paso (which covers New Mexico and West Texas), Los Angeles, Newark (which covers New Jersey), and Philadelphia (which covers Pennsylvania).
In 2013, nine out of 10 asylum seekers in the five field offices were found to meet the government’s criteria and were promptly released from immigration custody. In 2017, under the Trump administration, parole grants by the ICE offices named in this lawsuit dropped to nearly zero. More than 1,000 asylum seekers are estimated to have been denied parole in those five ICE districts alone.
“For many asylum seekers, prolonged detention unjustly denies freedom to those who fled to us for justice. The Trump administration’s attack on parole is part of its ongoing assault to undermine the asylum system, a cornerstone of our nation’s identity since its founding. Exacerbating the suffering of individuals to deter future asylum seekers is simply un-American,” said Human Rights First’s legal director, Hardy Vieux.
Lead plaintiff Ansly Damus — an ethics teacher from Haiti — has been locked up in Ohio for one year, four months, and counting. Damus committed no crime. Rather, he had spoken out against a government official and was then forced to flee violent, political persecution. When he arrived in the U.S., he presented himself to immigration authorities and requested asylum. He passed his credible fear interview and was granted asylum by a judge — not once, but twice. Despite that, he has remained behind bars while the government appealed his grants of asylum. The Trump administration has put Damus behind bars indefinitely alongside thousands of other asylum seekers like him. ICE has not allowed him outside even once in over a year.
“I have not breathed fresh air or felt the sun on my face, and I never know if it is cold or hot outside, if the sun is out, and if the seasons are changing,” Damus said.
Other plaintiffs include:
- Alexi Ismael Montes Castro, 18, detained at York County Prison in Pennsylvania. He fled Honduras after being beaten and held at gunpoint for being openly gay.
- A husband and wife detained separately at the El Paso Processing Center in Texas and the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico. The couple fled Mexico after being targeted and threatened with death by a criminal cartel.
- A 22-year-old detained at El Paso Processing Center in Texas, who fled El Salvador after being threatened with death for refusing to join a gang. He has been locked up for more than 21 months and has been denied parole despite posing no flight risk or danger to the public.
“Individuals fleeing persecution have a right under U.S. and international law to seek asylum from our government,” said Eunice Lee, co-legal director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. “They should not be locked away and punished simply for doing so.”
The case, Damus v. Nielsen, was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. It names the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice as defendants.