Explainer: Judge blocks Trump policy on indefinite detention of some asylum seekers

(Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge this week blocked yet another Trump administration immigration policy, this one aimed at expanding indefinite detention for some asylum seekers.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection patch is seen on the arm of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Mission, Texas, U.S., July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Tuesday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle said migrants cannot be denied a bond hearing that could give them a shot at release from detention while they fight their asylum cases.

Pechman’s injunction blocked the implementation of a policy that was due to take affect July 15.

The Trump administration said the ruling would incentivize human smugglers and traffickers, which would increase the strain on an overwhelmed immigration system. The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment about a possible appeal.

The policy stems from an April decision by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who ruled migrants who entered the country illegally would be ineligible for a bond hearing. Barr delayed the policy’s implementation to give the government time to find more detention space. The court decision this week halted stopped it from taking affect.

U.S. immigration courts fall under the Department of Justice and the attorney general can make decisions that set precedent for the entire system. His decisions can be challenged in federal court.

(Graphic: How Trump’s attorneys general are transforming U.S. immigration law - here)


The ruling affects tens of thousands of migrants apprehended by border agents who say they fear returning to their home countries, which triggers an interview to determine whether their fear is credible. If they pass that review, they can fight their case in immigration court and ask a immigration judge for bond so they do not remain in detention. Barr stripped that right to a bond hearing.

The ruling does not apply to the following groups:

* Those who ask for asylum at a legal port of entry. Under U.S. law, those migrants are not eligible for a bond hearing. They can, however, be granted humanitarian parole by immigration authorities, rather than from immigration judges. A separate legal challenge claims the Trump administration is systematically denying parole to some of those asylum seekers.

* Long-term residents living in the country illegally who are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

* Families, who make up an increasingly large portion of the immigrants entering along the southern border, because the government may only detain children for limited periods.


The class action lawsuit that led to Pechman’s ruling dates to June 2018. Civil rights advocates challenged the administration’s alleged practice of holding asylum seekers in detention for weeks or months without providing them a prompt credible fear interview and bond hearing.

In April, Pechman ordered the administration to provide bond hearings within seven days for asylum seekers who had passed a credible fear interview. Less than two weeks later, Barr issued a decision that would have eliminated their bond hearings before immigration judges altogether.

The rights groups asked Pechman to amend her April ruling, and on Tuesday she ordered the administration again to provide bond hearings within seven days of a bond request, or release the asylum seeker.

Her ruling takes effect on July 16.


Prior to the Trump administration’s tougher policies regarding illegal immigration, asylum seekers were often released soon after their arrest, allowing them to live with their families during legal proceedings that can take years.

Soon after Trump took office, he issued an executive order directing officials to “ensure the detention of aliens apprehended for violations of immigration law pending the outcome of their removal proceedings.”

In the Trump administration’s first year, migrants requesting bond hearings surged, according to a Reuters analysis. Whether or not an immigrant is granted relief in immigration court can vary widely depending on which judge is assigned to the case, another Reuters analysis showed.

Reporting by Tom Hals in Delaware; Editing by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Bill Trott in Washington