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A Judge Strikes Down Sessions' Decision Limiting Violence-Related Asylum Claims

The June change made it more difficult for those facing domestic or gang-related violence at home to advance asylum claims in the US.

Last updated on December 19, 2018, at 12:59 p.m. ET

Posted on December 19, 2018, at 11:56 a.m. ET

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that most of former attorney general Jeff Sessions' decision from June making asylum claims more difficult to advance by those facing domestic or gang-related violence in their home country was illegal — issuing a broad order that also allows some would-be asylum seekers a second chance to make their claims.

US District Judge Emmet Sullivan struck down parts of the June decision from Sessions that Sullivan found violated federal law, and ordered the federal government to return to the US the plaintiffs who had been deported because of Sessions' decision.

"A general rule that effectively bars [asylum] claims based on certain categories of persecutors (i.e. domestic abusers or gang members) or claims related to certain kinds of violence is inconsistent with Congress' intent to bring 'United States refugee law into conformance with the [United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees]," Sullivan wrote in the 107-page opinion. "The new general rule is thus contrary to the Refugee Act and the [Immigration and Nationality Act]."

The judge went on to find that the purpose of Sessions' policy, to heighten the standards for consideration of asylum claims at the initial, "credible fear" stage, was "fundamentally inconsistent" with the standards set by Congress.

For those facing expedited removal from the US under federal immigration law, an exception is made for those who can show they would face a "credible fear of persecution" if they are deported. The plaintiffs challenging Sessions' decision had such a "credible fear" claim denied, but only due to his decision limiting such claims.

"The Attorney General’s directive to broadly exclude groups of aliens based on a sweeping policy applied indiscriminately at the credible fear stage, was neither adequately explained nor supported by agency precedent," Sullivan wrote, finding that the decision was "arbitrary and capricious" in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

The opinion detailed several specific provisions of Sessions' decision — relating to treatment of group-based violence claims — that Sullivan found to violate the APA or immigration law.

Shortly after the decision, the Justice Department filed a motion asking Sullivan to put his ruling on hold to the extent that Sullivan's injunction "reaches beyond the plaintiffs."

While Sullivan's order to return individuals who had been deported applied only to the plaintiffs, the court's decision also vacated the policies that Sullivan found illegal and issued a permanent injunction barring the federal government from enforcing them in the future, which would affect all people going forward.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.