WASHINGTON – Immigrant rights groups filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday decrying the Trump administration’s ‘weaponization’ of the U.S. immigration court system and accusing the Justice Department of creating a “deportation machine” and subverting longstanding laws governing the treatment of immigrants in America.
The administration did not immediately respond to the latest in a series of legal challenges to the White House’s immigration policies and initiatives.
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The lawsuit, filed in Portland, Oregon by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights and advocacy groups, alleges the Trump administration has “manipulated the immigration court system to serve an anti-immigrant agenda.”
The plaintiffs said they want the district court to declare that Attorney General William Barr “has failed to take care that the laws relating to the immigration court system be faithfully executed.”
Asked by VOA if the Department of Justice had any comment on the litigation, spokesman Alexei Woltornist said, “nope.”
Data compiled by Syracuse University’s TRAC program show a steady rise in asylum denials during the Trump administration. The 2018 denial rate reached 65%, the highest of the century to date.
“The immigration courts make life-and-death decisions every day for vulnerable people seeking asylum, people who depend on a functioning court system to protect them from persecution, torture, and death,” Melissa Crow, senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, said during a press call to reporters.
Former immigration judge Ilyce Shugall also spoke with reporters, saying she resigned in March, 2019 to protest administration guidelines she believed made it impossible for her to serve as an impartial arbiter of immigration cases.
“As an immigration judge I watched the independence being stripped from the judge on a daily basis,” Shugall said. “This lawsuit will eventually lead to a truly independent immigration court system.”
Among the plaintiffs’ demands is an end to a court quota system that compels speedy adjudication of immigration cases. Plaintiffs say ending quotas would allow for a more careful “case-by-case” consideration of claims by those seeking to remain in the U.S.
The backlog in immigration cases nationwide currently exceeds one million, according to independent tallies. In an end-of-year spending deal, Congress included funds to hire additional immigration judges.
The lawsuit was filed on the same day the administration took steps to bar convicted immigrants from claiming asylum under a proposed regulation announced Wednesday.
The proposed regulation must go through a public comment period before it is finalized and lists seven criminal areas that would trigger asylum denial, including repeated illegal entries into the U.S., driving drunk or committing domestic violence.
U.S. asylum law already contains bans for more serious crimes, such as murder or rape.
In a press release, the Justice Department and Homeland Security said the changes would free up resources for asylum cases filed by non-criminal aliens.