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Immigrant legal groups from Maine sue federal government over low asylum approval rates

A screenshotted image of legal document filed in the United States District Court for the District of Maine.
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The ACLU of Maine filed suit against US Citizenship and Immigration Services on Friday, Dec. 17. The goal is to compel the agency to find and hand over documents explaining how agents at its Boston office make decisions about asylum cases.

Immigrant legal groups in Maine are concerned that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Boston is denying asylum cases at a rate far higher than the national average. And they’re suing the federal government to try to figure out why.

The lawsuit is designed to shed light on why the Boston office has only approved about 8% of asylum cases in recent years, compared to a national average that’s closer to 30%, according to court filings.

It's the latest development in an ongoing Freedom of Information Act request filed by the ACLU, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, and the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the Maine Law School.

Anahita Sotoohi is a legal fellow with the ACLU of Maine. She said the new court filings are aimed at compelling the federal government to provide documents that explain why it has denied certain asylum cases.

"Right now, when people are being denied asylum, it's murky, it's unclear, they don't really know why it's happening," Sotoohi said.

Anna Welch is the founder and director of the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic and also represents asylum seekers. She said the low approval rate forces most of her clients into the immigration court system, which is so backlogged that it often takes years to get before a judge.

"The impact on our clients is severe," Welch said. "And we have clients who have children and spouses who are still in danger and hiding in their home countries and we can't bring them in until they get asylum."

Welch added that many of her clients are eventually granted asylum through the immigration court system, and hopes this lawsuit will lead to an explanation of why those cases weren’t approved to begin with.