ACLU asks court to intervene over detained asylum seekers

WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal court on Thursday to intervene on behalf of asylum seekers, saying they are being unfairly detained while they await hearings before an immigration judge.

The ACLU lawsuit alleges that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency had begun ignoring its own guidelines since Donald Trump became president and is now unnecessarily detaining prospective asylum seekers for months.

All immigrants seeking asylum must initially pass a "credible fear" screening to determine if they face a threat of persecution in their home countries. Those who fail that standard are deported immediately. Previously, those who passed were usually given humanitarian parole while awaiting an immigration hearing, provided that they were not considered flight risks or dangers to the public.

ALCU lawyer Michael Tan told a federal judge Thursday that the number of asylum seekers granted such parole has dropped to nearly zero in five key ICE field offices: Detroit; El Paso, Texas; Los Angeles; Newark, New Jersey; and Philadelphia. Comparatively, he said, in 2013, 90 percent of asylum seekers from these field offices were released while awaiting immigration hearings.

Tan called it "implausible" that such a drop could have happened organically and asked the court to compel ICE to follow its own directives.

"There needs to be an accountability mechanism ... to ensure that ICE is fulfilling its obligations," he said.

Lawyers representing the government denied any wholesale policy shift and said they were looking into the matter.

Genevieve Kelly said that the five ICE field offices that Tan mentioned were "outliers" and that the agency must be allowed to make its own determinations on a case-by-case basis without interference.

"The reasons for denial (of humanitarian parole) have to remain discretionary," she said.

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