(Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Friday blocked one of President Donald Trump’s signature immigration policies that has helped to sharply curb a migration surge on the southern border and forced tens of thousands of migrants to wait in Mexico.
The decision is a major blow to Trump who has declared the policy a success in reducing the flow of hundreds of thousands of people from Central America into the United States as he campaigns for a second term in office.
A three-judge panel on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their argument that the program, called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), violated U.S. immigration law and international obligations on the treatment of asylum seekers.
Some 59,000 people have been sent back to Mexico to await the outcome of their cases in often dangerous border towns where they are vulnerable to kidnapping, rape, robbery and other crimes while living in sometimes unsanitary conditions.
Immigration attorneys rushed to ports of entry on the border after the ruling to ensure Customs and Border Protection officers were aware that the program had been blocked, said Taylor Levy, an El Paso-based immigration attorney. In El Paso immigration court, meanwhile, Judge Nathan Herbert adjourned proceedings for the day, saying he was not sure how the ruling would affect individual migrants’ cases.
Asylum officers, who screen migrants placed in the MPP program for fear of persecution in Mexico, were told to immediately stop working on such cases, according to an internal email shared with Reuters.
The ruling means the United States can no longer send people back to Mexico under the program, said Michael Tan, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. It is not clear how it affects people already in the program in Mexico.
The White House criticized the decision as “another reckless nationwide injunction threatening our constitutional structure,” and said it was “considering all available legal options to seek further review of this decision.”
If the ruling is allowed to stand, the White House said in a statement, it would “reignite the humanitarian and security crisis at the border.”
The administration is likely to quickly appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, as it has done with other rulings.
Trump, who has made cracking down on immigration a central theme of his more than three years in the White House, has sought through a series of new policies and rule changes to reduce asylum claims filed mostly by Central Americans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Trump administration’s policies on curbing asylum applications have led to a significant decline in the number of illegal crossings reported by border agents, and have been more successful than the president’s efforts to construct a physical barrier on the southern border.
Arrests of family units on the U.S.-Mexico border from October to January fell to 32,480, a nearly 70 percent drop compared to the same period a year earlier.
AS DANGEROUS AS YEMEN
Migrants in the MPP program, many of them children, have faced violence and homelessness as they wait for their court dates. At least 1,000 people sent back under the program were violently attacked or threatened in Mexico, according to a Feb. 28 Human Rights First report that documented kidnappings, rapes and assaults.
One of the states to which thousands of migrants were returned, Tamaulipas, is described by the U.S. State Department as carrying the same risk level as Yemen and Syria due to crimes including “murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, forced disappearances, extortion, and sexual assault.”
The Trump administration had argued the program did not violate a principle in international law known as non-refoulement, which says asylum seekers should not be returned to places where they face danger. The administration has said migrants could tell officials at any point in the process they had a fear of returning to Mexico.
Very few migrants have been transferred out of the program to pursue the resolution of their court cases in the United States, according to a Reuters analysis of immigration court data published last year.
A Washington-area union for federal asylum officers argued against the MPP program in a brief filed in the case.
“By forcing a vulnerable population to return to a hostile territory where they are likely to face persecution, the MPP abandons our tradition of providing a safe haven to the persecuted,” the union wrote.
The appeals court panel concluded that plaintiffs in the case, which included 11 asylum seekers and several immigration advocacy groups, “had shown a likelihood of success on their claim that the MPP does not comply with the United States’ treaty-based non-refoulement obligations.”
The Trump administration has said most asylum petitions are ultimately denied by immigration courts and releasing migrants into the United States to wait for hearings encourages people to disappear into the country. Officials say making migrants wait in Mexico is a way to cut down on fraudulent asylum claims.
In a separate ruling on Friday, the 9th Circuit left in place a lower court’s block on a Trump administration regulation that barred migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry from seeking asylum.
A three-judge panel in that case found the regulation – issued in November 2018 and swiftly enjoined by a federal judge in the Northern District of California – conflicted with federal immigration statutes on asylum and amounted to “a categorical ban” on certain asylum seekers.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York, Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles, Jonathan Stempel in New York, Ted Hesson in Washington and Julio-Cesar Chavez in El Paso; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Howard Goller and Daniel Wallis
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