ACLU steps up for stranded asylum seekers

A year ago, the only shelter providing assistance to migrants in Reynosa, Mexico, was nearly empty. Today, the facility, which is meant to accommodate 180 people, hosts 400./Arlette Blanco.MSF

The ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC) filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesady against the U.S Department of Homeland Security.

The suit demands that people seeking asylum who have been subjected to the Trump administration’s dangerous Remain in Mexico policy – referred to by the government as the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) – and who have expressed a fear of being returned to Mexico must be given access to their lawyers while awaiting critical interviews in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody.

Under MPP, thousands of people coming primarily from Central America through Mexico and seeking refuge in the United States are being returned to Mexico while their immigration cases are processed. MPP exposes these vulnerable migrants to dangerous conditions in a country that is not their own.

Asylum-seekers who express a fear of being returned to Mexico are provided an interview, called a “non-refoulement interview,” to explain the basis for their fear but they are not afforded access to their retained legal counsel during this critical part of the process.

“The right to consult with an attorney is fundamental to a fair and just immigration system,” said Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the ACLUF-SDIC. “This is especially true when it comes to a process where a person’s life may be at stake.”

The plaintiffs in the case are a Guatemalan family who fled their home in April 2019 after they were extorted, and the couple’s 17-year-old daughter was raped and threatened with death. The couple’s nine-year-old son has symptoms consistent with leukemia. While traveling through Mexico, the couple and their five children were assaulted by men in government uniforms at gunpoint and forced to take off their clothes during the attack. One of the assailants choked the 17-year-old daughter while she was completely undressed.

In August 2019, the family requested asylum in the United States but under MPP they were returned to Tijuana to await their immigration proceedings. During this time, there have been shootings outside the place where the family is temporarily staying.

When the family expressed a fear of being returned to Mexico, the father was separated from the family, handcuffed and given a “non-refoulement interview” via telephone and without legal representation. The rest of the family was interviewed separately, also without representation.

After the interview, the family was returned to Tijuana without explanation. The father has since been robbed at gunpoint while on his way to work.

The family is now being represented in their immigration case pro bono by Jewish Family Service of San Diego, which is one of only two organizations in the San Diego region providing legal representation and counsel to asylum seekers subjected to MPP.

“Individuals and families who are forced to remain in Mexico under MPP have virtually no access to legal services in the United States. Very few are represented by counsel. And they have limited to no access to other supportive services, including critical medical and behavioral health support, which would be available if they were going through the asylum process in the U.S.,” said Michael Hopkins, CEO of Jewish Family Service of San Diego. “Furthermore, for the cases that are represented by counsel, access to clients while in CBP custody is non-existent. This lawsuit is a necessary step to provide asylum seekers with due process.”

Under MPP, nearly 50,000 migrants have been returned to Mexico to await their legal proceedings, which unnecessarily puts each one of them in danger. Since the policy was implemented, there have been numerous incidents of people being robbed, kidnapped, extorted or murdered. This danger is exacerbated by the government’s policy of denying access to counsel while people are in CBP custody before and during their non-refoulement interviews. The government’s repeated attacks on the asylum process undermine our values as a just and compassionate country, and locking people up and forbidding them from consulting with their lawyers strikes at the very heart of our constitution.

Edward Sifuentes is Senior Media & Communications Strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties and a former North County Times journalist.

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