The Arizona Republic
Lawsuit: U.S. turning away asylum seekers
U.S. border officials have instituted a “turnback policy,” working hand in hand with their Mexican counterparts to deter migrants from seeking asylum in the United States, migrants-rights groups allege in a recent court filing.
The documents filed in a California federal court seek to establish that it has become formal U.S. policy to systematically turn away migrants legally seeking asylum at ports of entry along the U.S.Mexico border.
Documents filed Friday aimed to show that U.S. and Mexican border officials use intimidation and misinformation to prevent asylum claims and force migrants to return to Mexico where they are vulnerable to abuse and violence.
“These methods include ... a ‘metering’ or waitlist system that creates unreasonable and life-threatening delays in processing asylum seekers. Instructing asylum seekers to wait on the bridge, in the preinspection area, or at a shelter until there is adequate space at the POE (port of entry); or simply asserting to asylum seekers that they cannot be processed because the POE is ‘full’ or ‘at capacity,’ ” the filing states.
The amended filing is part of a class action lawsuit filed in 2017 against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection on behalf of the Los Angeles- and Tijuanabased migrant aid group Al Otro Lado Inc. and more than a dozen migrants.
In recent months, numerous media reports have documented migrants waiting for weeks on the Mexican side of the border to talk to U.S. immigration officers. In Arizona, dozens of migrants are camping in Nogales, Sonora, where wait times to be processed reached up to three weeks, migrant advocates say.
Elsewhere on the border, such as in Texas, migrant groups say they’ve documented many cases of Mexican and U.S. immigration officials turning away migrants, or not even allowing them to approach the border crossings.
The lawsuit — filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, American Immigration Council, Center for Constitutional Rights, and a Los Angeles-based law firm — said the practice had been widespread since 2016, under the administration of President Barack Obama, but that it has intensified since President Donald Trump took office.
In August, a judge in San Diego ruled the case could proceed as a class action lawsuit. But while the judge acknowledged patterns and practices of turning back migrants, the judge also signaled that the plaintiffs had not proven the existence of a formal “turnback policy” coming from top leaders at Customs and Border Protection.
Melissa Crow, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigration Justice Project and a co-counsel in the case, said the amended filing, submitted Friday at a San Diego courthouse, aims to do that.
“We’ve gotten a lot more evidence that there is a policy coming from CBP officials at the highest levels and we’ve seen an escalation under the Trump administration of the pattern of turnbacks,” she said.
Among the evidence listed in the filing are redacted, internal Customs and Border Protection documents including an email sent to port directors in south Texas in November 2016 directing them to “meet with your INM (Instituto Nacional de Migración, Mexico’s immigration agency) counterpart and request they control the flow of aliens to the port of entry.”
The documents also cite as further evidence of a formal policy public statements of Customs and Border Protection officials, and tweets from Trump railing against a migrant caravan bound for the San Diego border during the summer.
“When people, with or without children, enter our Country, they must be told to leave without our Country being forced to endure a long and costly trial. Tell the people, ‘OUT,’ and they must leave, just as they would if they were standing in your front lawn,” Trump wrote in a July 5 tweet.
Customs and Border Protection said they were unable to comment because the litigation is in progress. However, in the past, the agency has said it processes people as expeditiously as possible, but other factors, such as staffing and a focus on drug interdiction, affect its ability to process asylum seekers.
In an interview last month with the USA Today Network, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who is named in the lawsuit, said agents are doing the best they can given their resources, but that capacity is a lingering issue at the border ports of entry.
“They weren’t built for significant numbers of asylum seekers,” he said.
Migrant advocates said they have no way to verify the capacity of the ports of entry, whether CBP is truly facing limitations on space, or if they’re intentionally causing delays.