A US appeals court has blocked a Trump administration policy that requires asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while they await a decision on whether they can live in the US.
The decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is a blow to a controversial immigration policy enacted by Donald Trump to sharply reduce the number of people crossing the US-Mexico border.
The “Remain in Mexico” policy, introduced last year, has been credited with fuelling the growth of migrant camps along the border in Mexico as asylum seekers wait for the opportunity to enter the US.
The appeals court on Friday said the policy, officially titled the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, is likely to cause “irreparable harm” to the plaintiffs in the case, who include several individuals who have been returned to Mexico under the policy.
“Uncontested evidence in the record establishes that non-Mexicans returned to Mexico under the MPP risk substantial harm, even death, while they await adjudication of their applications for asylum,” wrote Judge William Fletcher in a 2-1 decision.
Judy Rabinovitz, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the appeal on behalf of the plaintiffs, said in a statement that the court had “forcefully rejected the Trump administration’s assertion that it could strand asylum seekers in Mexico and subject them to grave danger.
“It’s time for the administration to follow the law and stop putting asylum seekers in harm’s way.”
There was no immediate comment from Mexico’s foreign ministry, which has maintained in the past that the policy was foisted upon Mexico at the start of last year. There have since been reports of numerous human rights violations as people have been sent back to border areas that are among the most dangerous in Mexico, a country which hit a record of more than 34,000 murders last year.
Last year, under pressure from the US, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador backtracked on his government’s initial open-doors policy towards migrants, implemented after he took office in December 2018. His new National Guard police force has emerged as a front line of defence to prevent asylum-seekers from Central America from crossing Mexico en route to the US, leading to a dramatic drop in would-be immigrants at the border.
After the number of people apprehended at the US border peaked at 114,116 in May 2019, just 36,679 were apprehended in January, according to the latest US statistics. As well as returning asylum-seekers to Mexico, the US has also begun sending people back to Guatemala under an immigration deal reached with the government.
Stephanie Leutert, an expert on immigration at the University of Texas, said there were still questions about what the court ruling would mean for asylum seekers on the US’s southern border.
“Not all of the 60,000 people returned to Mexico are still there but what happens to [those that are there] now?” she said. “What happens to those who crossed for their hearings? There are a lot of questions about the very specific next legal steps.”