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Lawsuit seeks to block Trump asylum ban, saying it violates federal law

Three civil rights groups filed a lawsuit Friday to block the Trump administration's plan to bar people who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border from applying for asylum, arguing that the White House is violating federal law. 

The lawsuit comes on the heels of an announcement Thursday from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker that the asylum system is "overwhelmed with too many meritless asylum claims," and that the agency needed to institute the interim rule. 

"The interim rule, if applied to a proclamation suspending the entry of aliens who cross the southern border unlawfully, would bar such aliens from eligibility for asylum and thereby channel inadmissible aliens to ports of entry, where they would be processed in a controlled, orderly, and lawful manner," they wrote. 

On Friday, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation, which based the ban on the potential arrival of thousands of Central America, currently on foot and about 900 miles from the U.S. border, who "appear to have no lawful basis for admission into our country. 

"They are traveling in large, organized groups through Mexico and reportedly intend to enter the United States unlawfully or without proper documentation and to seek asylum, despite the fact that, based on past experience, a significant majority will not be eligible for or be granted that benefit," the White House said. "The continuing and threatened mass migration of aliens with no basis for admission into the United States through our southern border has precipitated a crisis and undermines the integrity of our borders." 

Around 51,000 people, either children traveling without a parent known as "unaccompanied minors," or parents traveling with children, known as "family units" have been apprehended in October by Border Patrol. Another 9,770 people were declared inadmissible at the nation's ports, according to newly published figures from the agency. 

In the Tucson Sector alone, nearly 1,200 people in families surrendered themselves to Border Patrol agents in October, and in nearby Yuma Sector, more than 2,600 people entered the United States. 

If the rule is implemented, both DHS and DOJ would amended their regulations, and DHS would create a "screening process" specifically to bar people from seeking asylum if they entered the U.S. between the ports. 

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The lawsuit argues that administration is violating the Immigration and Nationality Act, as well as the Administrative Procedure Act and asks the court to block the government from enforcing the rule. 

The case was filed in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, Al Otro Lado, Innovation Law Lab, and the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles.

In the lawsuit, the attorneys wrote: "Together, the rule and Proclamation bar people from obtaining asylum if they enter the United States somewhere along the southern border other than a designated port of arrival—in direct violation of Congress’s clear command that manner of entry cannot constitute a categorical asylum bar." 

In addition, the Acting Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security promulgated the rule without the required procedural steps and without good cause for immediately putting the rule into effect," they said. 

Omar Jadwat, the director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project called the ban illegal. 

"Neither the president nor his cabinet secretaries can override the clear commands of U.S. law, but that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. This action undermines the rule of law and is a great moral failure because it tries to take away protections from individuals facing persecution — it’s the opposite of what America should stand for," he said. 

The move comes as immigration officials and the White House continue to sound the alarm that a "caravan" of people traveling on foot more than 900 miles from the border would attempt to seek asylum in the United States, prompting the deployment of 5,600 active duty soldiers from more than 60 different units to the border, including around 1,500 in Arizona. 

With the proclamation in place, Customs and Border Protection officials at U.S. ports, including Nogales, made a major public relations push, asking asylum seekers to "please present yourself at the port of entry." 

This comes as members of the military and Border Patrol spent the week hardening the area about the Nogales port of entry, installing screens on the "bollard" wall to the west of the port, and concertina, or "razor" wire along the top of the Morley gate, and on the wall between gate and the Dennis DeConcini Port. 

On Friday, Tucson Sector Chief Rodolfo Karisch, said "over the last few years, we have seen increases of Central American families," and the "status quo is not sustainable." 

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"And, we haven't even started to talk about the caravan," he said. 

Officials within U.S. Customs and Border Protection said they were "well-prepared" for the caravan and downplayed the group of around 7,000 people, including around 1,000 children, who walked into southern Mexico from Guatemala earlier this month, according a memo leaked to TucsonSentinel.com. 

Mexican officials said that there were roughly 4,800 people seeking shelter in an stadium in Mexico City, offering a rough count of the number of people who are now walking on foot toward Querétaro, a city roughly 970 miles southeast of Nogales, Arizona and about 389 miles south of McAllen, Texas. 

"The asylum ban, coupled with CBP’s widespread practice and policy of turning back individuals attempting to seek asylum at ports of entry, would effectively deny protection to thousands of vulnerable individuals. The government’s blatant disregard for the rights of asylum seekers cannot stand," said Melissa Crow, a senior attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

In September, the Inspector General of DHS raised questions about the use of "metering," or limiting the entry of asylum seekers at ports, saying the procedure "may have led to additional illegal border crossings." 

Ali Noorani, the Executive Director of the National Immigration forum said that the agency should be added new resources to screen migrants. 

"Instead of generating chaos and confusion at our border, the administration should be offering more resources for processing asylum seekers to ensure that those fleeing violence and persecution have a full, fair opportunity to seek refuge within our borders," he said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A member of the U.S. Army welds brackets for metal screens with a Border Patrol agent's help in Nogales, Arizona on Friday.