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Judge Blocks Trump Administration's Asylum Restrictions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A federal judge has temporarily blocked the Trump administration from enforcing new restrictions on the asylum process. Among other things, the president wants to automatically deny asylum to people who cross the border illegally in the process of asking for it. Attorney Lee Gelernt is with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is one of the groups that challenged that policy in court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE GELERNT: The injunction is critical. Absent the injunction, people would be in real danger immediately. With the injunction in place, people will be allowed to apply for asylum. We hope that we'll be able to extend the injunction and make it permanent. Absent judicial intervention, people's lives would have been at stake.

INSKEEP: Reporter Lily Jamali is covering this story for our member station, KQED. She is co-host of "The California Report." Good morning.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So basic question - what is wrong, according to the critics here, with insisting that asylum-seekers come to regular legal border crossings on their way to the U.S.?

JAMALI: Well, they would argue that there are a whole host of reasons why asylum-seekers end up crossing illegally. They make the point that some asylum-seekers don't always do it on purpose. They might not know where to go. Sometimes, they're pushed to cross at unofficial points of entry by criminal elements. More recently, those critics have been making the case that authorities, both Mexican and American border enforcement, have been misleading asylum-seekers, sending them to other official crossings that can be miles away even if they try to come in through legal channels.

INSKEEP: I guess the point is these are desperate people who might not have a lot of choices. But what does the law say about someone who crosses the border illegally trying to seek asylum?

JAMALI: So the law says that if you come, regardless of how you got here, you are at the very least entitled to apply for asylum. And that's the point that U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar made in his ruling, that the president does not have the authority to rewrite immigration laws. What he's specifically referring to is the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which essentially codifies what I just laid out, that whether you cross through legal - through an official point of entry or at an unofficial point of entry, it doesn't matter. You at least have the opportunity to apply. It doesn't mean you'll get asylum, but you're allowed to at least give it a shot.

INSKEEP: How does this particular attempted rules change by the administration, saying that asylum-seekers will be denied unless they come to a legal border crossing, how does that fit into the broader scope of the asylum restrictions that the administration is going for?

JAMALI: Well, overall, you know, as you mentioned, it is a restrictive approach overall. President Trump issued a proclamation in this particular case in response to the so-called migrant caravan - members of which have already started arriving at the California border with Mexico in recent days. And he basically said that their impending arrival posed a national security threat - those are the words he used - making the argument that the immigration and asylum systems are already taxed. They cannot handle more. And what's interesting is that both sides argue here that the wait times that those official points of entry can be days, if not weeks. So this is just the latest example of the president trying to change regulations to kind of clamp down, essentially, on existing law. What the judge said, though, was that he was overstepping his authority, basically stepping on turf that has been Congress' for many years now.

INSKEEP: Who took this into court?

JAMALI: This case was brought by the ACLU. You heard from Lee Gelernt, who was the lawyer who argued the case in federal court yesterday. They are representing, along with some other civil rights groups, organizations that provide services to asylum-seekers. Many of these asylum-seekers come from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Many are claiming that they're fleeing violence and persecution. And the argument for this temporary restraining order, which the ACLU ultimately got, was that it's a violation of immigration laws we laid out earlier, that a lot of the time people are doing this by accident or because they're pushed to. And so essentially, the judge sided with them at the end of the day.

INSKEEP: Temporary restraining order, meaning the arguments aren't over here.

JAMALI: Exactly. The Department of Homeland Security hasn't commented on this judge's ruling. We're waiting to see how Secretary Nielsen and of course President Trump himself respond. But it's worth noting that Judge Tigar was appointed by President Obama. That might be a line of criticism we see in the coming hours and days. Specifically, what we're watching for is will the Department of Justice appeal this decision?

INSKEEP: Keep pushing on.

JAMALI: The next stop would be the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

INSKEEP: OK. Lily Jamali, co-host of "The California Report" at KQED, thanks.

JAMALI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.