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Harvard Law School Clinic Sues Trump Administration Over Proposed Asylum Rule Changes

Harvard Law School's Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration's latest proposed changes to asylum rules.
Harvard Law School's Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration's latest proposed changes to asylum rules. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Emmy M. Cho, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program filed a lawsuit in federal court in December on behalf of four immigrant rights organizations against the Trump administration’s proposed, sweeping changes to asylum rules.

The rule changes — which are set to take effect Jan. 11 — would significantly limit the ability for asylum seekers, including those who are escaping persecution, to gain protection in the United States.

The defendants named in the suit — which include the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies — have also proposed amendments regarding “standards for adjudication of applications for asylum and statutory withholding,” according to the Federal Register’s summary of the rule.

Harvard’s clinic — alongside the University of California’s Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and the law firm Sidley Austin — filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Dec. 21 on behalf of Pangea Legal Services, Dolores Street Community Services, Inc., Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., and Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

The organizations also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order on Dec. 23, which, if granted, would halt enforcement of the rule for a limited period until the court hears more evidence.

Justice Department spokesperson Nicole Navas Oxman wrote in an email that the department does not comment on matters in active litigation. DHS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Zachary A. Albun, a fellow at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program and co-counsel for the lawsuit, wrote in an emailed statement that the regulations are a “complete assault on the U.S. asylum system” and “out of line with the international treaties at the heart of our asylum law.”

“HIRC has a longstanding commitment to representing refugees, especially those living in the Boston area navigating the asylum and immigration system,” he wrote. “Stepping into federal court to defend the right to asylum in the U.S. grew naturally out of our work with that community.”

The litigation builds on a lawsuit filed earlier in the fall on behalf of the same set of plaintiffs that “challenged the administration’s baseless expansion of bars to asylum," according to Sabrineh Ardalan, the program’s director and another co-counsel for the lawsuit.

In response to that lawsuit, Ardalan wrote in an email, “the judge issued a nationwide injunction which prevented the rule from taking effect."

Albun credited Harvard law students working at the clinic for making significant contributions to the lawsuit’s development.

“Within HIRC, law students working in the clinic took the lead in performing legal research and drafting language for the litigation documents, which explain why the proposed regulations are illegal and why the Court should step in to stop them from taking effect,” he wrote. “It’s been a very interesting and exciting project on which to work with law students.”

Despite the Trump administration’s limited time frame before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, without court intervention, the regulations will take effect nine days before the current administration leaves office.

Though Albun wrote he is hopeful Biden’s Departments of Justice and Homeland Security will act upon the “illegality” of the proposed regulations, he underscored the importance of holding the new administration accountable to ensure sustainable change.

“We’re optimistic those changes will be undone through Congress, the Executive Branch, and the courts,” Albun wrote. “That said, it’s going to be very important for anyone concerned with immigrant justice to stay informed and continue to engage with elected officials to make sure progress happens.”

—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at

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