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ACLU sues to halt 'Remain in Mexico' asylum policy

Three civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging the Trump administration's plan to send asylum-seekers back to Mexico while their cases wind through the U.S. immigration system.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies on behalf of 11 individual asylum-seekers from Honduras and El Salvador who are "living in fear in Mexico because they were returned under the new policy." A half-dozen civil rights groups joined the suit, saying that said they are "thwarted" from helping clients who have been returned to Mexico.

In the 40-page complaint, the groups argued that under the administration's new Migrant Protection Protocols, "immigration authorities are forcing asylum seekers at the southern border of the United States to return to Mexico—to regions experiencing record levels of violence—where they must remain for the duration of their asylum proceedings."

"By placing them in such danger, and under conditions that make if difficult if not impossible for them to prepare their cases, Defendants are depriving them of a meaningful opportunity to seek asylum," they wrote.

Additionally, the groups said that the procedure used by immigration officials is "wholly inadequate for ensuring that those who face persecution, torture, or death in Mexico will not be erroneously returned."

"Indeed, the procedure is unlike any that Defendants have previously used to adjudicate such claims for protection. Yet Defendants’ policy memoranda contain no explanation for such a departure," the complaint read.

Trump administration officials did not immediately respond Thursday to TucsonSentinel.com's request for comment on the lawsuit.

'War on asylum seeks, system of laws'

The groups seek an injunction blocking administration officials from continuing the policy, and a declaration that the policy is illegal under the Immigration and Naturalization Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

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Along with the 11 individual asylum seekers, the lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Innovation Law Lab, the Central American Resource Center of Northern California, Centro Legal de la Raza, the University of San Francisco School of Law Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, Al Otro Lado, and the Tahirih Justice Center.

The lawsuit names Nielsen, as well as the heads of CBP, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

"This is no longer just a war on asylum seekers, it’s a war on our system of laws,” said Melissa Crow, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "This misguided policy deprives vulnerable individuals of humanitarian protections that have been on the books for decades and puts their lives in jeopardy."

On Dec. 20, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced that people who seek asylum in the United States may be returned to Mexico for "the duration of their immigration proceedings."

Originally called Remain in Mexico, or "Return to Territory," the Trump administration's plan would send asylum seekers back to Mexico in an attempt to "reduce illegal migration by removing one of the key incentives that encourages people from taking the dangerous journey to the United States in the first place," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen claimed. "'Catch and release’ will be replaced with ‘catch and return,'" she said.

The plan was implemented as a pilot program at the San Ysidro, Calif., border crossing in late January, and will initially apply to whose who are requesting asylum at that port of entry. However, senior DHS officials have said that the program will be expanded to other ports of entry across the southwest border, including Nogales, Ariz. 

The people who enter at the port will likely not be screened for asylum, but instead will be given a notice to appear before a U.S. immigration judge within 45 days. CBP has said that it will transport asylum seekers to their court hearings, and then return them as necessary, however, immigration advocates have said that this structure will give clients little time with attorneys. 

"The Trump administration is forcibly returning asylum seekers to danger in Mexico,” said Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. "Once again, the administration is breaking the law in order to deter asylum seekers from seeking safety in the United States."

One of the plaintiffs, a woman identified only as Bianca Doe, said that she fears returning to Honduras because she is a lesbian, and her partner’s abusive father threatened to kill them both. 

Another plaintiff, a man identified only as Ian Doe, said that he was a former undercover detective in Honduras, and he fled after drug traffickers discovered his identity. 

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And, a former youth pastor said he fled Honduras because gang members threatened his life after he criticized the government and a powerful gang on television after a member of his church was murdered. 

In the complaint, the groups said that “remaining in Mexico is not an option” for many people fleeing from Central America, because they face a “heightened risk of kidnapping, disappearance, trafficking, sexual assault, and murder, among other harms.” 

"Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, as well as people of indigenous heritage, are particularly at risk,” the complaint read. 

Ian Doe said that Mexican police detained him several times to demand his immigration documents, and just a month ago, officers required him to pay a bribe of 1,500 pesos to avoid being arrested and taken to jail.

Another man, Howard Doe, sad that he was kidnapped and held for two weeks by “members of a Mexican drug cartel until he and several others were able to escape.” 

"He fears that the well-connected cartel will find him in the border region and torture and murder him for escaping,” the complaint said. 

While the current plaintiffs are in Tijuana, the group said that another group of asylum seeker who arrived in Piedras Negras, across the Rio Grande River from Eagle Pass, Texas, face similar dangers in the state of Coahuila. 

Even as officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection worked to implement the policy, a confidential memo showed that officials were already anticipating a lawsuit as staffers were required to agree to a "litigation hold" and preserve documents, according to an internal document leaked to TucsonSentinel.com in January.

Last Friday, three groups pressed the federal government for information on the policy, filing a Freedom of Information Act request for key documents on the agreement between the U.S. and Mexico on the implementation of the "Remain in Mexico" policy.

"U.S. government agencies must be held accountable for their actions. To this day, children are still in the process of being reunited with their parents, there have been multiple deaths in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody, and there has been a dearth of information about the impact and implementation of the newly introduced ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy,” said Josh Rosenthal, staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. "The government has a responsibility to be clear and open about how they plan to implement these new changes to the asylum-seeking process, and we will demand that it be held accountable."

The NILC said that the FOIA request would seek "documents related to the coordination between the U.S. and Mexican governments" related to a process know as "metering" which restricts the number of asylum seekers who can come into U.S. ports, as well as documents "related to the processing and detention of asylum applicants who present themselves at southern border ports of entry." 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

People wait in line at the Morley pedestrian crossing in Nogales, Son. in December.

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