Judge declines to dismiss challenge to US asylum delays

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SEATTLE (AP) — Immigrant rights activists can continue to challenge what they describe as unlawful U.S. government delays in asylum cases, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle dismissed some arguments raised by the lawsuit in a ruling Tuesday, but she said the activists can pursue their claim that the delays violate the due process rights of detained asylum seekers across the country. The government sought to dismiss the case.

The Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed the lawsuit in June against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which said through a spokeswoman Wednesday that it does not comment on pending litigation.

According to the complaint, migrants seeking asylum after entering the U.S. illegally have had to wait weeks or months for their initial asylum interviews, at which an immigration officer determines whether they have a credible fear of persecution or torture in their home country. After that, there have been long delays in getting bond hearings, which determine whether an asylum seeker will be released from custody as the case proceeds.

“They’re doing what they can to keep people locked up for prolonged periods and block asylum seekers from moving forward with their claims,” Northwest Immigrant Rights Project legal director Matt Adams said Wednesday. “What we’ve seen firsthand is many asylum seekers give up after they’ve been locked up for weeks or months without ever getting a bond hearing,” and opt to be deported rather than exercise their legal right to seek asylum.

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The group initially filed the lawsuit in response to the administration’s family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, saying the delays had kept mothers detained at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, from being reunited with their children in immigration custody across the country. Those plaintiffs have since been released, but the lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of thousands of asylum seekers.

The complaint asks the judge to order the government to make credible fear determinations within 10 days and to conduct bond hearings within seven days of an asylum seeker’s request for one.

The government argued that such deadlines are not required by law and that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction to impose them. In its motion to dismiss, the Justice Department argued that because the detainees have only just arrived in the U.S. without being granted admission, they “lack a constitutional right to demand expedited procedures for such hearings.”

Pechman disagreed, saying that because the detainees had crossed into the U.S. they were entitled to greater constitutional protections than the government claimed.

“Simply put, are they ‘excludable aliens’ with little or no due process rights, or are they aliens who are in the country illegally, but nevertheless in the country such that their presence entitles them to certain constitutional protections?” she wrote. “Plaintiffs have adequately plead that they were within the borders of this country without permission when detained, and thus enjoy inherent constitutional due process protections.”

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