SAN DIEGO (AP) — Dealing a blow to a Trump administration immigration policy, a federal appeals court ruled Friday that the government can no longer keep asylum seekers in Mexico waiting while their cases went through US immigration courts.
The same court, based in San Francisco, decided to suspend another major change, one that denies asylum to anyone who enters the United States illegally from Mexico.
The Trump administration’s double setback could prove temporary if it appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has consistently sided with the president on immigration and border security policies.
The “Remain in Mexico” policy, officially known as the “Migrant Protection Protocols”, came into effect in January 2019 in San Diego and has been gradually extended across the border. Nearly 60,000 people have been turned away to await hearings, and officials believe this is a key reason illegal border crossings have fallen by around 80% from a 13-year high in May.
Reaction to the ruling has been swift among lawyers and immigration advocates who have spent months battling with the administration over a program they see as a humanitarian disaster, subjugating hundreds of migrants to violence, kidnappings and extortion in dangerous Mexican border towns. Hundreds more live in squalid encampments just across the border, awaiting their next court appearance.
The lawyers planned to get the immigrants across the border immediately and present the court’s decision to border officials on Friday. The lawyers hoped to have their clients appear before judges in US immigration courts.
In the ruling, the justices acknowledged the controversy that has engulfed federal courtrooms over the issue of nationwide injunctions in recent weeks. The Trump administration has been widely critical of the nationwide injunctions, saying a few “liberal” regions shouldn’t make policy for the whole country.
A split court declared the policy invalid but recognized that California and Arizona are the only border states under its jurisdiction. Texas and New Mexico are beyond its jurisdiction.
Justice William Fletcher, writing the majority opinion, sided with the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups who argued the policy violates international treaty obligations against returning people to a countries where they risk being persecuted or tortured on grounds of race, religion, ethnic origin, political beliefs or membership of a particular social group. The question before the justices was whether to let the policies take effect pending legal challenges.
Fletcher agreed the government had set the bar too high for asylum seekers to persuade officers they should be exempt from the policy and hadn’t given them enough time to prepare for interviews or consult lawyers. The judges said the government also erred in requiring asylum seekers to express their fear of returning to Mexico to be considered for an exemption, instead of asking them voluntarily.
Fletcher quoted at length from asylum seekers who said they had been assaulted and victimized in Mexico, saying it was “enough — in fact, far more than enough” to undermine the government’s case.
Fletcher was joined by Judge Richard Paez, both appointed by President Bill Clinton. Judge Ferdinand Fernandez, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, dissented.
“The court strongly rejected the Trump administration’s claim that it could tie up asylum seekers in Mexico and put them in grave danger,” ACLU attorney Judy Rabinovitz said. “It is time for the administration to respect the law and stop putting asylum seekers at risk.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to request for comment.
The decision’s impact will be at least partially mitigated by the expansion of other policies that have been introduced in response to the unprecedented influx of asylum-seeking families that peaked last year, many of them from the Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
In November, the administration began sending asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador to Guatemala, denying them a chance in the United States and inviting them instead to apply in the beleaguered Central American country. conflicts. Similar agreements with Honduras and El Salvador are expected to enter into force soon.
Under another new policy, Mexicans and Central Americans who fail an initial exam are quickly deported without leaving border patrol posts, which gained notoriety last year for internal security monitoring reports. interior on the squalid conditions in parts of Texas. The screening interview is designed to take place within one day and any appeal to an immigration judge within 10 days. Asylum seekers have up to 90 minutes to contact a lawyer.
These rapid eviction policies were introduced in October in El Paso, Texas, and expanded across the border this month.
The other measure, with far-reaching consequences, denies asylum to anyone who crosses another country to reach the US border with Mexico without first seeking protection there. That policy went into effect in September and is being challenged in a separate lawsuit.
Proponents of the “Remain in Mexico” policy note that it has prevented asylum seekers from being released in the United States with court appearance notices, which they see as a major incentive to come.
The policy was introduced at the San Diego border crossing and initially focused on Central Americans. By November it had reached all the major corridors, the last being Arizona.
Asylum seekers from more than 40 countries have been turned away, with Hondurans accounting for more than one in three, according to Syracuse University’s Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse. Guatemalans were second, followed by Cubans and Salvadorans.
Mexicans are exempt under the policy, as are unaccompanied children.
Asylum was granted in less than 1% of the approximately 35,000 cases that were decided. Only 5% are represented by lawyers, many of whom are reluctant to visit clients in Mexico.