The rule requires all asylum-seekers arriving at the southern border to first pursue safe haven in a third country through which they traveled on their way to the United States.
The decision allows the rule to stand for now.
But the Trump-appointed judge, Timothy Kelly of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, will still preside over the underlying legal challenge that could strike the law down.
More immediately, the rule also faces a second court challenge in the Northern District of California, where the judge in that case, Jon Tigar, was appointed by former President Barack Obama. A hearing was held on Wednesday and a written ruling could be issued at any time.
Tigar could issue an order to block the new asylum rule, possibly in the form of a preliminary injunction, which carries more weight than a restraining order.
Even so, the Trump administration was quick to celebrate the win in the Washington court, saying it would discourage abuse of the asylum process.
“The rule properly encourages migrants to seek asylum in other countries they have traveled through before reaching the United States and makes those who fail to do so ineligible for asylum, thereby foreclosing opportunistic claims by those who want to exploit our asylum system,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.
The administration has sought to curtail the increasing numbers of mostly Central American migrants arriving at the U.S. -Mexico border after fleeing violence and poverty in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. It has characterized the vast majority of their asylum claims as bogus.
After the administration announced the rule last week, the American Civil Liberties Union and pro-immigrant groups sued, claiming it violates U.S. law that welcomes those who come to the United States while fleeing persecution at home.
Opponents of the rule contend the United States cannot force migrants to first apply for asylum in another country, such as Mexico or Guatemala, unless Washington first has a “safe third country” agreement with that government. Both Mexico and Guatemala have resisted Trump administration efforts to reach such a deal.
The judge’s decision in the D.C. court to allow the rule to go forward was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which said it was disappointed by the ruling but would keep fighting.
“We had hoped to obtain immediate relief from the potentially drastic consequences of this rule, which we firmly believe violates U.S. law and the Constitution,” Mitchell Reich, one of the attorneys representing the coalition, said in a statement.
In California, Tigar said he was struck by the dangers faced by people passing through Mexico, which was significant because the Trump administration argued that the country was a safe haven.
“The administrative record about the dangers faced by persons transiting through Mexico and the inadequacy of the asylum system there … is stunning,” Tigar said from bench.
The administration has issued a rapid-fire series of anti-immigration edicts recently. The issue is shaping up to be a focus of the 2020 presidential campaign.
Voters rewarded Trump for his anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 2016 election campaign, sending him to the White House after he promised to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Last week, the administration issued another rule to expedite deportations for immigrants who have crossed illegally within the last two years and are caught anywhere in the United States. The rule eliminated a level of judicial review and expanded a program typically applied only along the southern border with Mexico.
Democrats have blasted the policies as cruel, faulting the Trump administration for warehousing migrants in crowded detention facilities along the border and separating immigrant children from the adults they have traveled with.
Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco, Mica Rosenberg and Daniel Trotta in New York, and Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by David Gregorio, Paul Simao and Bill Berkrot