A group of asylum seekers being held in U.S. detention centers since applying to enter the country filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed the suit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Washington on behalf of nine detained asylum seekers from Haiti, Venezuela and other countries.
The suit claims that Homeland Security has violated U.S. law by refusing to allow entire groups of asylum seekers to be released on parole from prisons and detention centers while their applications are decided.
Asylum is an immigration status granted to people already in the U.S. who fear they will be persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality or political views if forced to return to their home country.
Every asylum seeker is interviewed by a Homeland Security agent to determine if the applicant has a “credible fear” of returning home. They are then allowed to make their case before an immigration judge.
In 2009, the Obama administration instituted a policy that made it easier for asylum applicants to be released on parole while their cases are being decided. But under the Trump administration, the number of asylum-seekers granted such parole has dropped to nearly zero in five key Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices: Detroit; El Paso, Texas; Los Angeles; Newark, New Jersey; and Philadelphia.
The lead plaintiff is Ansly Damus, 41, an ethics teacher who fled political persecution in Haiti. He was twice granted asylum by a judge, according to the suit, but has remained incarcerated in Ohio for more than 16 months while the government appeals his case.
ACLU attorney Michael Tan said the Trump administration is punishing people seeking asylum.
“The United States is trying to send a message to asylum seekers that they need not apply,” he said.