WASHINGTON — A federal judge refused Friday to block new rules allowing immigration officials greater authority to turn away foreigners seeking political asylum in the United States.
In the first of several planned challenges to the nation's new immigration law, immigrant-rights lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to block expedited removal rules that took effect Tuesday.
They contend potential refugees will be improperly turned away--and returned to the homelands they fled in fear--under unduly harsh regulations written by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Sullivan declined to grant the temporary restraining order sought on behalf of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. Before getting to the merits of the "significant and important" issues raised, Sullivan is giving the Justice Department and immigrant-rights lawyers until mid-May to marshal their cases.
The Justice Department contends that Sullivan's court has no jurisdiction to hear the case. The immigration law passed last year by Congress sharply limits courts' ability to review INS actions.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights, who filed the legal challenge, expressed disappointment that the restraining order wasn't granted.
"Obviously, we're disappointed because we believe there are people at the airport right now who are being turned back," said Judy Rabinovitz, an attorney with the ACLU's Immigrant Rights Project.
Rabinovitz and her colleagues argue that the INS went well beyond Congress' intent in drafting the expedited removal rules.
The regulations allow INS agents to refuse entry to travelers without documents or with improper paperwork unless the refugees demonstrate a credible fear of persecution if returned to their homeland.
Under the old law, asylum seekers were granted entry and given ample time to file a claim, to have a hearing before an immigration judge and to appeal the judge's ruling. Now, immigration agents can decide such requests on the spot if the traveler is carrying invalid or fraudulent documents.
Advocates for immigrants contend that the INS rules withhold information regarding asylum interviews from potential refugees and don't stipulate that the applicants have the right to counsel.
INS officials say potential refugees are given ample notification of their rights.
Once a person presents himself to an INS agent without proper documents, he is turned over to a second agent. That agent then questions the person, informing him that U.S. law provides protection to certain people facing persecution, harm or torture if returned to their homeland.
If the agent doesn't find credible fear, the person can be turned away.
Robert Rubin of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights said immigrants with legitimate reasons for seeking refuge are being summarily denied admission because they can't articulate their reasons.