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Overturn of Trump asylum ban praised by refugee rights group

A spokeswoman for an East Bay refugee rights group that sued President Donald Trump over a partial asylum ban said today the group is thrilled with a temporary restraining order granted by a federal judge.

The ban “would have had a huge impact” on the work of the Berkeley-based East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, said spokeswoman Lisa Hoffman.

Hoffman said 80 percent of the refugees served by the covenant group crossed the southern U.S. border illegally and would have been barred from applying for asylum by the ban announced by Trump on Friday.

The ban issued in a proclamation by Trump would have allowed asylum applications only from immigrants who crossed the border at designated entry points. Those entering illegally would have been barred from applying.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar of San Francisco temporarily blocked the ban in an order Monday evening, acting in a lawsuit filed against Trump and other officials by the covenant and three other immigrant aid groups.

Tigar said the ban violated a “clear command” of Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act, which permits asylum applications from people physically present or arriving in the United States “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.”

The judge wrote:

“Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden.”

The temporary restraining order will remain in effect until a Dec. 19 hearing in Tigar’s court on whether he should grant a longer-lasting preliminary injunction while awaiting a full trial.

Hoffman said the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant has represented asylum seekers in 3,600 cases adjudicated since 1992 and 97 percent of the refugees were granted asylum. Another 1,400 cases are pending.

Most of the asylum seekers are from Central America and Mexico, but the covenant has worked with people from 60 countries, Hoffman said:

“Our clients are fleeing violence. Many haven’t heard of asylum and most don’t know about ports of entry. … They’re mostly so traumatized they just want to get safe.”

The organization was founded by five religious congregations in 1982 to help refugees fleeing civil wars and violence in El Salvador and Guatemala. It now works with staff of 25, most of whom are lawyers and paralegals, and 125 volunteers.

Hoffman said that most of the group’s clients have made their way to the Bay Area and then hear by word of mouth or through organizations such as churches about the possibility of applying for asylum with the aid of the covenant organization.

The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Al Otro Lado, Innovation Law Lab and Central American Resource Center.

ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, who represented the groups at a hearing before Tigar Monday, said in a statement:

“This ban is illegal, will put people’s lives in danger, and raises the alarm about President Trump’s disregard for separation of powers. … There is no justifiable reason to flatly deny people the right to apply for asylum, and we cannot send them back to danger based on the manner of their entry. Congress has been clear on this point for decades.”

The Trump administration vowed to fight to defend the ban.

Justice Department spokesman Steve Stafford and Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Katie Waldman said in a joint statement:

“We look forward to continuing to defend the executive branch’s legitimate and well-reasoned exercise of its authority to address the crisis at our southern border,” “Asylum is a discretionary benefit given by the executive branch only when legal conditions are met and a favorable exercise of discretion is warranted. … It is lawful and appropriate that this discretionary benefit not be given to those who violate a lawful and tailored presidential proclamation aimed at controlling immigration in the national interest.”

Federal law allows refugees to apply for asylum in the United States if they have left their country “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The decision of whether to grant asylum is up to the U.S. attorney general, subject to review by federal appeals courts.

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