SEATTLE (AP) — A federal judge in Seattle on Tuesday refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought on behalf of tens of thousands of immigrants around the United States who may not have been told that they had a one-year deadline to apply for asylum.
The case concerns immigrants who either were found to have a credible fear of persecution if returned to their home country or expressed such a fear. They were then released from immigration custody pending deportation proceedings, but according to their lawyers were not told about the deadline.
The Department of Homeland Security argued that even if they missed the deadline, the asylum seekers could still ask an immigration judge for permission to apply. But U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez said Tuesday that's not good enough, because the law gives them a right to seek asylum within a year.
"Plaintiffs allege that ... they must now rely on an immigration judge to find, in his or her discretion, that either changed circumstances or extraordinary circumstances justified their delayed filings," Martinez wrote. "If Plaintiffs' allegations are true, they have lost the statutory right to apply for asylum."
The lawsuit alleges that due to severe backlogs in the U.S. immigration system, the asylum seekers often aren't scheduled to appear in immigration court for more than a year after their arrival, and thus often don't find out about the deadline until it's too late. There's also no standard procedure for how to apply for asylum, it argues.
Among the immigrants named in the case is Elmer Geovanni Rodriguez Escobar, 37, a resident of the Seattle suburb of Burien who came to the U.S. from Honduras in 2014. He wasn't informed about the deadline, and immigration officials have rejected his attempts to file for asylum, his lawyers say.
Another is Lidia Margarita Lopez Orellana, a 37-year-old who arrived in Eagle Pass, Texas, from Guatemala in 2014 with her two youngest children in tow. Now living in Austin, she says that despite checking in with immigration authorities regularly as required, she didn't learn about the deadline until December 2015, when she met with a lawyer. She filed an asylum petition the next month.
One of the plaintiffs' lawyers, Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said the judge's decision gives them leverage to push for system-wide reform.
"All of our plaintiffs were in this situation where more than a year after the fact they find out about this deadline," he said. "It creates a big fight to see if they can get in the door to apply."
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