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Border & Immigration

Immigrant Legal Service Providers Sue Over 'Asylum-Free Zones'

People in walk towards the U.S. border in Tijuana, Mexico, Tuesday, March 19, 2019.
Associated Press
People in walk towards the U.S. border in Tijuana, Mexico, Tuesday, March 19, 2019.

A new lawsuit alleges that some parts of the United States have become “asylum-free zones.”

The plaintiffs of the lawsuit are a group of immigration legal service providers who believe that the immigration court system, under the Trump administration, has made successful asylum claims a long shot for immigrants.

It was filed in federal court in Oregon, but challenges the immigration court system nationwide.

It focuses on immigration courts like the one in Atlanta, which denied 95.7% of asylum claims adjudicated between 2014 and 2019. Courts in 23 cities have denied more than 85 percent of applications for asylum, with El Paso having the highest denial rate at 96.6%.

Instead of acting independently and judging cases on their merits, the lawsuit alleges that immigration judges, who work for the Department of Justice, are simply carrying out the orders of the administration while squaring off against immigrants who rarely have a lawyer representing them.

Innovation Law Lab, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs.

“In many cases, you have an unrepresented individual appearing, opposed by a government attorney, and judged by effectively another government attorney who ultimately answers to the Attorney General,” Tess Hellgren, an attorney with Innovation Law Lab told KPBS.

The lawsuit also alleges that the DOJ has instituted a metrics system for judges, which incentivizes judges to resolve cases quickly. In practice, they allege, this has led judges to close cases before fully inspecting the merits of the asylum claim.

According an analysis by NBC 7 San Diego, from the fiscal year 2016 through March 2018, immigration judges in San Diego granted asylum an average of 49 percent of all the cases processed. This comes in above the national average of 42 percent during the same time period.

Plaintiffs says immigration court needs judges that are independent of the Department of Justice, which has not yet responded to KPBS's request for comment.

Immigrant Legal Service Providers Sue Over 'Asylum-Free Zones'
Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.