As a legal challenge to the Trump administration’s “Stay in Mexico” program heads to the Supreme Court, a new one is brewing in California.
The program, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, forces most asylum seekers from Latin American countries to wait in Mexico while their immigration court cases progress in the United States. The lawsuit, which seeks to become a class action, was filed Wednesday in the Central District of California.
It is presented by several asylum seekers who have been returned along the California border with organizations that employ their attorneys – the San Diego-based Jewish Family Service and the Los Angeles-based Immigrant Defenders Law Center.
the complaint argues that the program is designed to ensure that as many asylum seekers as possible are deported rather than protected. He says the program forces asylum seekers to remain in dangerous situations that prevent them from having access to the tools and information they need to successfully present their case to US immigration judges. He also says the federal government’s handling of the pandemic with respect to the border has made the situation worse.
One of the main arguments is that the program does not provide people who participate in it with access to legal representation, said Luis Gonzalez, an immigration lawyer with the Jewish Family Service.
“As lawyers, access to our clients has been extremely limited,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez recalled the difficulties in finding safe and confidential places to meet clients in Tijuana. Once he had to prep a woman for her final asylum hearing sitting in a Starbucks.
“It was very difficult because we were talking about very sensitive information, and we had to do it in a public place and do our best to make sure people around us couldn’t hear what we were talking about. were talking,” Gonzalez said.
Additionally, there is no confidential meeting space for lawyers to meet with their clients when they are on the US side of the border for court.
Meeting with lawyers is only a small part of the additional difficulties asylum seekers face under the program because they are in Mexico. Even finding an attorney to represent a returnee MP is much more difficult than it would be if the person were in the United States.
According to the government Data obtained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, approximately 7% of asylum seekers who were placed in the Remain in Mexico program had legal representation.
Munmeeth Suni, director of litigation defense at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, recalled watching the Remain in Mexico court hearings in March in which not everyone in the room was represented. The judge spoke to them as a group rather than individually.
“Everyone looked so lost,” Suni said. “I was lost – as an immigration lawyer who has been doing this job for 13 years, I couldn’t keep up with what was going on. It was surreal to witness this.
Judges have already blocked implementation of the program, but appeals have let Mexico stay in place for now. The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the original case against the program, which was filed shortly after the MPP began.
Trump administration officials have vigorously defended the program and celebrated it as a critical tool in achieving the president’s border goals.
“This process helps promote a safer and more orderly process along the southwest border, discourages individuals from making baseless asylum claims, and enables speedy immigration results,” said Secretary Chad Wolf. acting Department of Homeland Security, in a recent speech.
The first lawsuit questioned the validity of the program on three grounds – whether it was legal under immigration law, whether its implementation was legal under procedural change laws, and whether it complied with US obligations under international human rights law.
Stephen Manning, executive director of Innovation Law Lab, one of several organizations representing plaintiffs and himself one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, said this new lawsuit is different because it is based on a wider range of information collected. observing the program in action since its announcement in December 2018 and its implementation in January 2019.
“The biggest distinction is that we now have over a year of real-time observation of the impact of the Stay in Mexico policy on people and the danger, despair, trauma and death it causes. that we didn’t have before,” Manning said.
A Nicaraguan man represented by the Jewish Family Service said he was extorted by Mexican police. Gonzalez said another client of his, a woman from Guatemala, was nearly kidnapped on his way home from taking his children to school.
“In Mexico, we were discriminated against because of our condition, for not belonging to this country,” said a Honduran asylum seeker under the pseudonym Benjamin in transcripts provided to the Union-Tribune. “It was very difficult to find work because we didn’t have the documents they asked for. Being in the MPP program has touched us so much as a family. They separated me from my eldest son, and they tried to kidnap another of my sons. My children have not been able to have a stable life because they fear being kidnapped.
Manning pointed to numerous reports from human rights monitors and journalists of people on the program facing kidnappings, assaults, and even death while forced to wait in the program.
The lawsuit argues that the Trump administration was aware of these dangers, pointing to US State Department human rights reports that specifically describe how migrants are targeted in Mexico.
“What politics has done is it has trapped thousands of people in dangerous areas and taken away their ability to access basic means to survive,” Manning said.
Suni said that contrary to calls from clients who have been injured in immigration detention centers in the United States, she feels there is nothing she can do for clients in crisis in Mexico.
“When my client is detained, calls me and says, ‘I’m not getting my meds’ or ‘I was abused by a guard’, I know exactly what I can do and how. trying to get this hurt treated,” Suni said. “When a client calls me who is in MPP and is stuck in Mexico and tells me he is scared for his life, he doesn’t know where he is going to sleep this evening, I’m so helpless.”
The situation has only worsened under the pandemic.
Hearings in all MPP cases have been suspended since COVID-19 began shutting down the country. While President Donald Trump has pushed the United States to reopen in many ways, the Department of Homeland Security has left little hope that the Remain in Mexico hearings will resume anytime soon. Dates are scheduled and rescheduled.
“People are trapped in Staying in Mexico with no way out,” Manning said. “They are essentially stuck in Mexico indefinitely with no way to claim asylum.”
He said the government should allow these asylum seekers to enter the United States if it does not schedule hearings for them during the pandemic.