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SPLC lawsuit challenges Trump administration’s turnback policy against asylum seekers

The Trump administration has illegally and deliberately restricted the number of individuals who can access the asylum process at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to an updated class action lawsuit filing from the SPLC.

The case is called Al Otro Lado, Inc. v. Nielsen.

In accordance with the official “Turnback Policy,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have used various methods to unlawfully delay migrants’ access to the asylum process based on purported – but seemingly untrue – assertions of a lack of “capacity” to process them. 

The "Turnback Policy" compounds other longstanding border-wide practices CBP has been using since at least 2016 to prevent migrants from seeking asylum in the United States. The Trump administration’s policy and widespread practice of turnbacks violate U.S. and international law, and subject vulnerable people who are seeking asylum to imminent danger, deportation or death, the lawsuit states.

An amended complaint was filed on Friday by 13 individual asylum seekers and Al Otro Lado, an immigration legal services provider, against high-level officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“Internal CBP documents released in this case reveal that high-level CBP officials authorized a Turnback Policy as early as 2016 to restrict the flow of asylum seekers to the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Melissa Crow, senior supervising attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “The Turnback Policy has escalated under the Trump administration and has been buttressed by a wide range of unlawful tactics that CBP uses to deny asylum seekers access to the protection they deserve.”  

CBP’s unlawful turnback tactics include an extensive array of inaccurate information and abusive treatment that asylum seekers have faced at the hands of U.S. border officials, including assertions that the U.S. is no longer providing asylum or that people from specific countries are not eligible; yelling at, harassing, and assaulting asylum seekers and their children; threatening to take children away from their parents; and setting up “pre-checkpoints” that prevent asylum seekers from reaching the U.S. border.

CBP officials have misinformed asylum seekers that they could not apply for asylum because “Donald Trump just signed new laws saying there is no asylum for anyone,” according to the lawsuit.

Over four consecutive days in March, CBP officials turned away Guatemalan asylum seekers, saying “Guatemalans make us sick,” according to the lawsuit, and just last month, CBP denied access to an asylum seeker who was four months pregnant and a victim of sexual violence.

These practices all violate U.S. law, which requires that asylum seekers “shall” have access to the asylum process, according to the lawsuit.

The "Turnback Policy" practices are directly attributable to high-level Trump administration officials, including Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, the lawsuit says.

The complaint also cites Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ characterization of asylum seekers as deliberately attempting to “undermine our laws and overwhelm our system,” and Nielsen’s reference to the legally required process of receiving and processing asylum seekers at the border as a “loophole.”

Asylum seekers are fleeing persecution in their home countries, and suffer unspeakable harm en route to the U.S. at the hands of Mexican government officials, cartels and gangs. When they are turned away at ports of entry, the lawsuit argues, they are compelled to either enter the U.S. illegally and be prosecuted, stay trapped in Mexico where they are targeted by criminal groups, or return home to face persecution and death.

The new lawsuit amends a previous complaint that challenged CBP’s turnbacks of asylum seekers at ports of entry. The challenged practices were initially implemented in 2016, and were greatly exacerbated by the Trump administration.

The Los Angeles and Tijuana-based organization Al Otro Lado, Inc. and individual asylum seekers, who are collectively represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Immigration Council and the SPLC, jointly filed the amended lawsuit.

For more information about the case, click here.

Download our Fact Sheet on the case here.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images