CGRS Files Lawsuit Challenging the Arbitrary Detention of Asylum Seekers

April 3, 2018 - Under the Trump Administration, an increasing number of asylum seekers arriving at the border are being detained and denied release on parole. Longstanding Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy has stipulated that asylum seekers be granted humanitarian parole while their cases are pending, provided they show they do not pose a flight risk or danger to the community. In direct violation of this policy, the Trump Administration is categorically subjecting asylum seekers to prolonged, indefinite detention in an unlawful attempt to deter others from seeking protection in the United States.

CGRS has teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights First, as well as pro bono counsel from Covington & Burling LLP, to file a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. challenging the Trump Administration’s arbitrary detention of asylum seekers. Using data obtained through our recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, we have identified five Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field offices – in Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Newark, and Pennsylvania – that have adopted a de facto policy of blanket parole denials, detaining virtually every adult asylum seeker in their districts. Since January 2017, more than 1,000 asylum seekers have been detained in these five districts alone. This represents a complete reversal of previous detention practices; in 2013, the field offices named in our lawsuit granted humanitarian parole to nine out of ten asylum seekers.

Plaintiffs in our lawsuit are individuals who presented themselves to U.S. immigration authorities, requested asylum, and were found by an asylum officer to have a credible fear of persecution in their home countries. All 11 plaintiffs were subsequently detained and denied humanitarian parole by the ICE field offices named in the suit. Lead plaintiff Ansly Damus is an ethics teacher who was subjected to violent persecution in his home country of Haiti after speaking out against a government official. Fearing for his life, Mr. Damus fled Haiti, presenting himself at the U.S. border and requesting asylum. He has been granted asylum by an immigration judge twice but remains in detention pending government appeals of those decisions. The ICE field office in Detroit has denied Mr. Damus’ requests for parole, even though he has demonstrated that he is not a flight risk and poses no danger to the community. Mr. Damus, who has committed no crime, has now been held in immigration detention for over 16 months.

The arbitrary detention practices employed by the ICE field offices targeted in our lawsuit violate DHS’ own parole policy, which precludes the detention of asylum seekers except in unusual cases. These practices are also unconstitutional, depriving asylum seekers of liberty without due process, in direct violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Most troubling, these practices inflict irreparable harm on asylum seekers. Conditions in immigration detention centers are notoriously poor, providing insufficient access to basic medical and mental health care. Numerous studies show that the experience of being detained re-traumatizes asylum seekers, who have often already endured tremendous suffering in their home countries. Detention also makes it exceptionally difficult for asylum seekers to retain legal representation and successfully present claims for protection. The motivation driving these harmful practices is clear: the Trump Administration wants to use detention as a tool to deter others from seeking asylum at our borders, despite a previous court ruling finding deterrence to be an impermissible basis for civil immigration detention.

People fleeing persecution have a legal right under both U.S. and international law to seek protection. They should not be subjected to indefinite, punitive detention for doing so. To support our plaintiffs and all who are impacted by the Trump Administration’s cruel and unlawful detention practices, please sign the ACLU’s petition calling for the release of our plaintiffs and an end to the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers.

Photo from John Moore, Getty Images.