U.S. Government Sued Over Illegally Turning Away Asylum Seekers

Today several groups filed suit against the U.S. government’s Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency for turning away asylum seekers, contrary to domestic and international law.

Along the U.S.-Mexico border, asylum seekers arrived from all over the world to present themselves to CBP to ask for protection. The right to seek asylum is enshrined in Article 33 of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, which came into being in 1951 and was expanded by the 1967 Protocol. The United States signed the Protocol in 1968, enacting domestic law to implement the international agreement in 1980.  The U.S. is thus bound by the terms of the Protocol and the Convention itself, including, critically, the principle of non-refoulement — non-return of individuals to a place where they would  face persecution on account of one of the five protected grounds.

In recent years, however, CBP has been routinely turning away vulnerable asylum seekers, forcing them to return to Mexico without allowing them to pursue their right to claim asylum.  This illegal practice has worsened as CBP officers became emboldened following the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. President. Indeed, in January 2017, several groups filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Offices of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Inspector General, alleging systemic abuses at the border. In March, the U.S. government failed to even show up to defend their practices before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, a session which included testimony from multiple groups on the illegal turning away of asylum seekers at the border.

To challenge the unlawful practice of turning away asylum seekers, today the American Immigration Council, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Latham & Watkins LLP filed suit in federal court in California’s Central District. The plaintiffs are Al Otro Lado, a “national, direct legal services organization serving indigent deportees, migrants, and refugees in Tijuana, Mexico” and six of their clients. The lawsuit alleges that DHS and CBP have violated asylum seeker’s rights to seek protection, along with their due process rights under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and violations of international law.

The plaintiffs’ stories are all too familiar to asylum lawyers based in the U.S. Personally, I Co-Direct the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law. Our current clients include several mothers fleeing violence in Central America who eventually made it into the U.S. after being illegally turned away. We work with survivors of extreme domestic violence and persecution at the hands of transnational criminal organizations, known as “maras,” were turned away at the border by officials with statements such as “There’s no asylum for people from Honduras…” or “You can’t get asylum because you’re scared of your husband.” These statements are patently false, of course, and the precedential Board of Immigration Appeals decision, Matter of A-R-C-G-made clear that individuals fleeing domestic abuse can meet the asylum definition.

As Karolina Walters of the American Immigration Council summarizes from the Complaint today, on their blog, “[o]ther examples of the tactics used by CBP officers against asylum seekers, include:

  • Misrepresenting that visas are required to cross at a POE or that asylum seekers must obtain a “ticket” from a Mexican government agency before they will be allowed to enter the United States to seek asylum;
  • Yelling profanities at an asylum-seeking mother and her 5-year-old son, throwing her to the ground, and forcefully pressing her cheek into the pavement; and
  • Coercing asylum seekers into recanting their fear on video and into withdrawing their applications for admission to the United States.”

The Washington Post quotes legal fellow, Katie Shepherd, also with the American Immigration Council  “‘[CBP officers are] getting very creative; we keep hearing new ways they’re turning people away. . . ‘If a single asylum seeker is denied in a day, that’s one too many.’”

It is, of course, a sad state of affairs that a lawsuit to protect the rights of asylum seekers is necessary. We can only hope that the Court will hold the government to account and the government will honor their legal obligations to protect refugees.

 

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Judge’s Order in Flores Should Signal the End of Family Detention in the United States

A federal judge issued an order in the Flores case that should go a long way to ending the government’s practice of detaining children and their mothers in unlicensed, secure facilities in Dilley and Karnes, Texas. Since the summer of 2014, the government has detained thousands of women and children fleeing violence in Central America. The longstanding Flores settlement guarantees minimum standards for the detention, release, and treatment of children in immigration detention. These standards, the court concluded, are not being met.

The judge’s order came after settlement negotiations between the parties failed earlier in July. The judge gave a withering critique of the government’s argument that the terms of the original Flores v. Reno 1997 settlement agreement only apply to unaccompanied minors, finding that the terms of the agreement plainly apply to “all minors.” Under the settlement, children generally must be released from custody.

Moreover, the judge said that the government “must release an accompanying parent as long as doing so would not create a flight risk or a safety risk.” There should be few cases in which a mother should not be released with her child. Almost all of the mothers currently detained are fleeing threats of violence and persecution in their home countries and are seeking asylum and other humanitarian protection here in the United States. They lack criminal records and have every incentive to appear for future court dates given that a clear majority of them have credible claims to asylum.

The judge also weighed in on short-term detention facilities, finding that the government had materially breached the agreement to provide “safe and sanitary” holding cells for children following their arrest. The freezing concrete cells, known as “hieleras,” or ice boxes, are unsanitary, overcrowded, and deprive children of adequate nutrition or hygiene.

What remains to be seen is how the government will respond to the court’s order. The government has until August 3 to submit papers to the court explaining why the ruling should not be implemented within the next few months; the government also may appeal the Judge’s decision. Given the harmful effects of continued detention—which include mental and physical harms—many advocates are hopeful that the government will choose to comply with the order promptly.

In anticipation of releasing children and mothers, the government should be taking steps to make sure that proper release practices are developed and implemented. Unfortunately, over the past couple of weeks, advocates witnessed chaos, disorganization, and coercion surrounding releases stemming from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s June 24 announcement that women who passed an initial interview to establish their eligibility for protection under U.S. immigration law would be released.

Today, the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono project partners, who provide pro bono representation to women and children currently detained in Dilley and Karnes, Texas, called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director, Sarah Saldaña, to take immediate steps to remedy the situation. It is critically important that measures are in place to ensure that the mothers fully understand their rights and obligations upon release, to ensure their future appearance in immigration court and their timely filing of claims for protection in the United States.

As we see the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel of family detention, let’s make sure that the government goes about this the right way.

(Cross-Posted from Immigration Impact)

 

Australia’s Increasingly Restrictive Policies Block Asylum Seekers From Entry

Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, recently announced a strict new policy mandating that all asylum seekers arriving by boat would be sent to a refugee-processing center in Papua New Guinea. This policy change has been covered widely in the media, through the New York Times, the BBC, and other news outlets. According to the Australian Prime Minister’s announcement, asylum seekers, by arriving by boat without a valid visa, will forfeit any right to claim asylum in Australia. Rather, if an asylum seeker is determined to have a genuine claim to refugee status, she will be resettled in Papua New Guinea. Australia is, of course, a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. While this development is disheartening, it is not shocking given the political arena and the long history of restrictive asylum policies in Australia. Australia’s policies with regards to asylum seekers arriving by sea have long been controversial. In August 2001, Australia turned away a Norwegian vessel in distress carrying over 400 asylum seekers, focusing international attention on the intersection of maritime rescue law and refugee law. For coverage of this incident and in depth coverage on related issues, see Professor Niels W. Frenzen’s Migrants at Sea blog. Amnesty International’s Australia Chapter also provides regular reports and coverage on the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia.

Australia is, of course, is only one of several countries to turn away asylum seekers arriving by sea. Indeed, the United States also participates in interdiction at sea. In fact, our own Supreme Court explicitly found this practice to be in line with our international obligations even where, in that case, the US was interdicting Haitians and returning them to the country of feared persecution. See Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, 509 U.S. 155 (1993). Whether Australia’s evolving interdiction policy will be judged by its own courts remains to be seen.