A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s administration can continue to send asylum-seekers back to Mexico to wait for their U.S. immigration court proceedings. The policy will temporarily remain in place while immigration advocates challenge its legality in court.
The ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit marks the second time a three-judge panel with the court has overturned the decision of a federal judge in San Francisco, who ordered the government to halt the program, known as Migration Protection Protocols. The appeals court now has a larger conservative presence due to the recent confirmation of Trump appointees.
It’s a rare victory for an administration that has been blocked by federal courts on other immigration issues, and a big upset for advocates who say the policy endangers immigrant lives.
“It’s a disappointment for sure,” said Anna Joseph, an attorney with the Institute for Women in Migration. “It will mean that a lot of people spend time in Mexico in dangerous and vulnerable situations, suffering in a variety of ways.”
The government claims its “Remain in Mexico” policy is intended to deal with the fact that a record-high number of migrants are now entering the U.S. And Kirstjen Nielsen, the former homeland security secretary who introduced the policy, said too many migrants skip their court dates and stay in the U.S., despite data that shows 89% of asylum applicants showed up to their court hearings in fiscal year 2018.
Advocates say the policy is designed to sabotage migrants’ chances of seeking asylum in the U.S., since they have less access to legal counsel and are forced to live in dangerous conditions. They told HuffPost the Trump administration has done nothing to ensure that the people it sends back to Mexico have shelter and safety. And they say border towns are completely overwhelmed by the influx of migrants, including small children, who are living in life-threatening situations.
“You have men, women and children who are returned and not given work permits or housing,” said Robyn Barnard, a staff attorney for Human Rights First. “They are just basically dropped off on the Mexican side of the border and told to come back in X weeks or months for their next hearing.”
An immigration official told NBC that at least 3,200 migrants have been sent back to Mexico to await asylum hearings since the policy was implemented in late January. Advocates told HuffPost those numbers have increased in recent weeks and that in particular, more families are being sent to border cities.
The U.S. government is sending people back into harm’s way, which is absolutely in violation of international and domestic legal obligations. Charanya Krishnaswami, Amnesty International USA
Mexican shelters are now overburdened with people who need places to stay for months, and in some cases, for up to a year. So while immigrant organizations struggle to create more facilities, many migrants have nowhere to go. Joseph recently saw hundreds of people sleeping on the streets in Mexicali, and Barnard spoke with a Honduran mother who was sleeping outside with her two young kids because they could not find a place to stay in Tijuana.
Charanya Krishnaswami, the advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA, was recently at an immigration court in El Paso where a group of mothers and their kids were so scared of being sent back to Mexico that they were crying in bathroom stalls.
“They said, ‘I’m just so scared,’” said Krishnaswami. “‘I don’t want to go back there and I don’t have a place to stay tonight.’” Without shelter, these migrants are vulnerable to traffickers, gangs and other perpetrators.
Many border cities have high rates of violence ― at least seven Honduran migrants have already been killed in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, and advocates have spoken to other migrants who have been kidnapped by cartel groups or other criminal organizations. Krishnaswami said that at a recent immigration hearing in San Diego, almost half of the migrants expressed a fear of returning to Mexico. Yet Vox recently reported that asylum-seekers are being sent back to that country despite having a credible fear of persecution.
“The U.S. government is sending people back into harm’s way,” said Krishnaswami, “which is absolutely in violation of international and domestic legal obligations.”
Joseph met domestic violence victims who had been sent back to Mexico despite expressing fears that their perpetrators had followed them from Central America. She also met migrants who fled gangs that had members in Mexico, yet they were still forced to wait in a country where their lives are in danger. And despite the fact that migrants with medical needs aren’t supposed to wait for their hearings in Mexico, Barnard has a client with epilepsy who was sent back and can’t afford his medication.
While advocates are disheartened by the appeals court ruling, the larger lawsuit that immigration advocates filed against the Department of Homeland Security is not over, and could still end up before the Supreme Court.
“This policy is unprecedented,” said Krishnaswami. “The fact the court is letting it go on when there are clear indicators of illegality and cruelty is deeply disappointing.”