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CLINIC Lawsuit Seeks to Protect Asylum Seekers who Fear Family-Based Harm

Washington – November 25, 2019: The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. has filed suit against the federal government alleging that recent policy changes are designed to make it more difficult to win asylum in the United States.

Joined by Crowell & Moring LLP as co-counsel, CLINIC filed SAP v. Barr in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of 13 families from Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, Mexico and El Salvador.

Immigration law provides for asylum when a person fears persecution on account of their membership in a “particular social group.” For decades, judges have considered families to be quintessential “social groups” under the law. One member of the 13 families seeking asylum is a 4-year-old boy from Guatemala who was threatened with death because his father refused to join a political campaign.

Under prior policy, the boy, identified as SAP, would have been granted asylum, as he feared persecution based on his father’s political activities, and families are “particular social groups.” However, under a new policy issued this summer by Attorney General William Barr, families aren’t “particular social groups” unless they have “greater import in society.”

“The U.S. government is intentionally preventing asylum seekers from ever getting their day in court,” said Anna Gallagher, executive director of CLINIC.

Bradley Jenkins, CLINIC’s federal litigation attorney, said that “in case after case, asylum officers are finding that these asylum seekers do fear real harm, but they can’t meet the government’s impossible new standard that their family must have some special significance in the society.”

Under immigration law, asylum seekers who present themselves to authorities at the border or are apprehended near the border, must pass a screening interview by an asylum officer before they are placed into full immigration court proceedings. Since the Department of Homeland Security issued new guidance on family-based claims this summer, asylum officers have denied the vast majority of such claims, sending asylum seekers back to harm’s way without ever having a full asylum hearing.

SAP v. Barr challenges the policy guidance that requires asylum officers at the border to reject claims from applicants who fear harm based on family membership. The guidance implements Barr’s July decision in Matter of L-E-A- that radically reinterprets the particular social group ground of asylum. Previously, the government accepted that families almost always comprise particular social groups, meaning that asylum seekers had strong claims if they were threatened or harmed by persecutors who want to punish their family members. The lawsuit argues that through L-E-A-, and its implementing guidance, the government seeks to alter accepted principles of asylum law.

“These families face real danger in their home countries,” said Tracy Roman, a partner at Crowell & Moring. “This lawsuit aims to protect refugees seeking asylum and advocate for a fair system of protections for families fleeing these horrific situations.”

“Bad actors around the world, from despotic regimes to organized criminals, intentionally target families for persecution,” said Jenkins, who represented both Mr. L-E-A- and the plaintiffs in this case. “For 35 years, everyone agreed that our laws offered protection to people fleeing precisely this dynamic of violence. Now, the attorney general offers a tortured interpretation of that law in order to maximize the deportation of vulnerable people. This action is immoral and unlawful.”

CLINIC and Crowell & Moring seek to enjoin the government and prevent it from continuing to apply its new guidance to threshold asylum screenings.

About Crowell & Moring LLP 

Crowell & Moring LLP is an international law firm with more than 550 lawyers representing clients in litigation and arbitration, regulatory, and transactional matters. The firm is internationally recognized for its representation of Fortune 500 companies in high-stakes litigation, as well as its ongoing commitment to pro bono service and diversity. The firm has offices in Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orange County, London, and Brussels.

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