Several groups on Thursday filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s policy that requires Central American asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are decided in the U.S.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, requests that a judge strike down the plan formally called “Migrant Protection Protocols” but commonly referred to as “Remain in Mexico.”
Under U.S. law, people requesting asylum at the southern border – either at a port of entry or after illegally entering the country, and who pass an initial screening – are allowed to stay in the country pending an immigration judge’s decision on their application.
Under the new plan unveiled by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in December, most people who request asylum at the southern border will be processed by federal immigration agents and then immediately returned to Mexico while their case is decided.
“The Trump administration is forcibly returning asylum seekers to danger in Mexico,” said Judy Rabinovitz of the ACLU, one of the groups that filed Thursday’s lawsuit. “Once again, the administration is breaking the law in order to deter asylum seekers from seeking safety in the United States.”
Justice Department spokesman Steven Stafford said the department will defend the “lawful actions” taken by the administration.
“Congress has explicitly authorized the Department of Homeland Security to return aliens arriving from a contiguous foreign territory to that territory during that alien’s immigration court proceedings,” Stafford said.
The “Remain in Mexico” plan is just the latest attempt by the Trump administration to deter migrant families and unaccompanied minors – mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – from making the trek north.
The Justice Department announced new rules last year to end asylum for victims of domestic abuse and gang violence, and to prevent migrants who enter the country illegally from applying for asylum. Both of those moves were blocked by federal courts, with one judge declaring that Trump “may not rewrite the immigration laws.”
Since October, an average of 24,975 members of family units and 5,031 unaccompanied minors have reached the southern border each month, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
While the overall level of illegal immigration remains at historic lows, President Donald Trump believes those migrants represent a “national crisis,” which is why he is expected to declare a national emergency this week designed to fund an expansion of the southern border wall. That decision is also likely to face a legal challenge.
The ACLU led the lawsuit that prompted a federal judge in California to block the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that led to more than 2,800 family separations along the border last year. The group filed Thursday’s lawsuit along with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies on behalf of 11 asylum-seekers who have already been returned to Mexico.
The U.S. and Mexico had been in negotiations over a joint plan where Mexico would be responsible for caring for the asylum-seekers. But when those talks broke off in December, the U.S. made the unilateral decision to start forcing asylum-seekers back and the Department of Homeland Security started implementing the plan in California in January.
The Mexican government and human rights groups have been scrambling ever since to care for those waiting migrants. The Trump administration has said it plans to expand the new policy along the rest of the southern border over the coming months.
Asylum is a form of protection granted to people who fear persecution in their home countries based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or their political opinion.
All 11 plaintiffs applied for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest along the border, and are now waiting in Tijuana for their cases to be decided.
One plaintiff is a police officer from Honduras who worked undercover targeting drug cartels before his identity was revealed, leading the cartels to target him. The complaint alleges that he narrowly escaped the country, but that his brother was killed by the cartels.
Another plaintiff is a man from Guatemala who says he’s been the subject of beatings and death threats because of his indigenous background.
Another plaintiff is a lesbian woman from Honduras who was raped, had her child taken away from her by a judge because she is a lesbian and received a death threat from her father.
The lawsuit argues that being forced to wait in Mexico is nearly as dangerous as staying in Central America.
“Asylum seekers in Mexico face a heightened risk of kidnapping, disappearance, trafficking, sexual assault, and murder, among other harms,” the lawsuit reads. “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, as well as people of indigenous heritage, are particularly at risk.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lawsuit challenges Trump plan keeping asylum-seekers in Mexico until case decided