(San Francisco Chronicle) – A Bay Area federal judge has given the go-ahead to a nationwide suit by thousands of immigrants who seek asylum in the United States and accuse the government of illegally keeping them in jail for months.
In rejecting the Obama administration’s attempt to dismiss the suit, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of Oakland ruled that federal law requires officials to decide within 10 days whether an undocumented immigrant has a “reasonable fear” of persecution or torture if deported. Immigrants are held without bail while awaiting those decisions.
The law says a decision must be made within 10 days unless “exceptional circumstances” exist. Justice Department lawyers argued that immigration officials have the sole authority to define exceptional circumstances and are not bound by any deadline.
But Gonzalez Rogers, in a ruling Friday, said the law’s meaning is clear: Decisions are required within 10 days except in rare cases where circumstances justify a delay.
Government records since 2006 show that “the exceptional appears to have become the norm,” the judge said. Out of 2,583 reasonable-fear determinations nationwide in the first six months of this year, she said, only 78 were issued within 10 days.
“The (immigration) agency appears to have ignored the regulatory deadline altogether,” Gonzalez Rogers said. She said the suit could proceed as a nationwide class action, since the government’s practices are the same in every state.
The suit was filed in April on behalf of undocumented immigrants who have been deported but re-enter the United States and say they would be persecuted in their homeland.
To avoid immediate deportation and remain eligible to seek asylum, they must convince either an asylum officer or an immigration judge that they have a reasonable fear of persecution.
Despite the 10-day legal deadline, the suit said, decisions last year took an average of 111 days. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which employs the asylum officers, has a policy that “encourages” them to decide 85 percent of their cases within 90 days.