RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A federal judge in California has dealt the Trump administration a setback in its latest effort to reduce the number of people looking for asylum here in the U.S. The Trump administration wanted this rule that would've required most asylum applicants to have tried to get asylum in a third country as they traveled to the U.S. The federal judge has blocked that rule.
Joining us now, NPR's John Burnett, who covers immigration. Hi, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: What was the judge's rationale in blocking this rule?
BURNETT: Federal Judge Jon Tigar in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction against the new rule, which he says would, quote, "categorically deny asylum to almost anyone who crosses the southern border without first asking for asylum in Mexico or Guatemala." One problem Tigar cited in his 45-page opinion is that neither Mexico nor Guatemala have signed agreements with the United States to offer safe haven. The judge wrote that the government's decision to promulgate the rule was capricious and arbitrary. That's because it would expose migrants to violence and abuse in those third countries and possibly deliver them right back into the hands of their persecutors.
Lee Gelernt is the ACLU lawyer who argued the case yesterday.
LEE GELERNT: Those countries do not have fully functioning asylum systems, so the administration's premise that if you really needed asylum you would simply apply in Guatemala or Mexico is not true. It's too dangerous for them to apply there, so that's why desperate people have to come to the U.S. to seek refuge.
BURNETT: The judge also said it's Congress's job to make asylum laws, not the White House's.
MARTIN: And this, I understand, was one of two dueling rulings on the same question - right? - from opposite coasts.
BURNETT: Exactly. On Wednesday morning, another federal judge, Timothy Kelly there in the District of Columbia, ruled the other way. He gave a courtroom victory to President Trump, who appointed him. Judge Tigar was appointed by Obama. Kelly in D.C. agreed with Justice Department lawyers that, quote, "it's in the greater public interest to allow the administration to carry out its immigration policy." So in the same day, you have the White House congratulating Judge Kelly for shutting down, quote, "opportunistic claims by those who want to exploit our asylum system." And then a few hours later, here comes Judge Tigar's opinion. His injunction applies nationwide, so Judge Kelly's favorable ruling is dead in the water.
MARTIN: What's the administration's point in all of this? I mean, what is the gist of their argument here?
BURNETT: Well, Rachel, the White House is alarmed at what they call the ongoing crisis at the border. What bugs Trump is that asylum officers let most applicants enter the U.S. and wait here for months or years for their day in immigration court. That's created a backlog of nearly a million cases today. And yet they point to the fact that 8 out of 10 people who ask for asylum are ultimately denied because they don't meet the definition of fleeing persecution. Immigrant advocates countered that these people are fleeing genuinely dangerous circumstances in their home countries and they deserve due process and refuge.
MARTIN: This has become a pattern, though, right? The administration rolls out some big plan to curtail asylum, and then the courts knock it down.
BURNETT: Yeah, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Mark Morgan, told NPR last week they were actually expecting an injunction to suspend the new asylum rule. I mean, just look at the administration's track record. So many of Trump's immigration initiatives have ended up on hold in court. Last year, Trump tried to block asylum seekers who entered the country illegally between ports of entry. And this same California judge, Jon Tigar, told the administration, you can't do that. The government is appealing that case, and that's exactly what we expect in this case. DOJ will appeal to the Ninth Circuit, and the wheels of justice will grind on.
MARTIN: John Burnett - he's NPR's Southwest correspondent covering immigration. John, thanks.
BURNETT: Thanks, Rachel.
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