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Federal Judge Blocks Trump Administration's New Asylum Rule

People walk across International Bridge 1 Las Americas, a legal port of entry that connects Laredo, Texas, in the U.S. with Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Marco Ugarte
People walk across International Bridge 1 Las Americas, a legal port of entry that connects Laredo, Texas, in the U.S. with Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Updated 8:05 p.m. ET

Hours after a federal judge on the East Coast refused to block a Trump administration rule requiring most asylum-seekers to ask for protection in another country before they try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, a judge on the West Coast put a stop to the new policy.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction against the controversial rule unveiled by the White House and applied on a "pilot" basis last week.

Tigar wrote that the "new Rule is likely invalid because it is inconsistent with the existing asylum laws."

Attorney Lee Gelernt with the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that brought the case, said in a statement that "the Trump administration was attempting an unlawful end run around asylum protections enacted by Congress."

During a hearing, Tigar had questioned the Department of Justice attorney about whether the government can require people to apply for protections in countries that lack an asylum process as robust as in the U.S.

Responding to the government's argument that a Central American migrant traveling through various countries on the way to the U.S. can theoretically qualify for alternative forms of relief, Tigar said, "I wasn't able to find a scintilla of evidence about the adequacy of asylum system in Guatemala."

Tigar sided with several immigrant rights organizations — East Bay Sanctuary, Al Otro Lado, Innovation Lab and Central American Resource Center — that argued that the government wrongfully bypassed the required notice and comment procedures before implementing the changes, and that the rule doesn't achieve the purposes the White House claims are its goals. In other words, it would neither reduce the number of "meritless" claims filed by asylum-seekers nor would it slow the flow of immigrants to the U.S.

Tigar's decision followed a ruling from U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly of Washington, D.C., who determined earlier Wednesday that "it's in the greater public interest to allow the administration to carry out its immigration policy."

In that case, the Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition and RAICES, or Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, had sued to try to block the new rule, arguing that it would strip asylum eligibility from migrants fleeing dangerous situations.

But Kelly ruled that the administration's interest outweighs the damages that might be experienced by the organizations helping migrants. And he expressed "strong doubts" that plaintiffs can show the government overstepped its authority by issuing the rule.

"I'm not saying it would cause no irreparable harm" to migrants seeking asylum in the U.S., Kelly, who was appointed by Trump, said before the ruling. But, he stated the immigrant rights organizations had failed to show how many clients they would be unable to reach as a result of the new rule, how many people would be turned away and how many migrants would ultimately qualify for asylum. He added that both CAIR Coalition and RAICES had failed to demonstrate that the new rule would "greatly increase" the amount of time it takes to prepare for migrants' imminent danger interviews.

The White House celebrated Kelly's ruling that upheld the rule, calling it a "victory" that will discourage "abuse of our asylum system."

In a statement, press secretary Stephanie Grisham said, "The rule properly encourages migrants to seek asylum in other countries they have traveled through before reaching the United States and makes those who fail to do so ineligible for asylum, thereby foreclosing opportunistic claims by those who want to exploit our asylum system in an effort to immigrate unlawfully to the United States."

Grisham suggested tens of thousands of migrants apply for asylum making "meritless claims," causing years-long delays for "genuine asylum seekers."

"We are disappointed in the [Washington] court's decision today, but we will continue to fight to ensure that this harmful rule does not unjustly impact children and adults who apply for asylum as well as immigration legal service providers' ability to help asylum seekers," Claudia Cubas, CAIR Coalition's litigation director, said in a statement at the time.

"This new rule is contrary to our laws and we will continue to challenge this attempt to remove asylum [eligibility] from those who are fleeing violence and persecution around the world," Cubas added.

The California judge's preliminary injunction is the latest blow to the Trump administration's attempts to curb the influx of immigrants coming to the U.S. from Central America. In November, the judge issued a nationwide restraining order against a Trump administration policy seeking to limit asylum eligibility to only those who cross at legal points of entry.

On Monday, the administration announced another rule change to expand the number of undocumented immigrants who can be put into fast-track deportation proceedings. Immigrant advocates also plan to challenge that policy in court.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.