Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout
A federal judge has temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s policy of returning some asylum seekers to Mexico as they wait for their hearings in an American immigration court.
The Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” were expanded to include El Paso's ports of entry last month after beginning in California’s San Ysidiro Port of Entry in January.
It was immediately met with a backlash from immigrant rights groups and attorneys who said migrants could be in danger in violent Mexican cities and that being in Mexico makes communicating with their U.S.-based attorneys more challenging.
California-based U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg ordered the Trump administration to halt the program by the end of the week. He put his ruling on hold until Friday to allow the government time to seek a stay of his order, but in his 27-page order Seeborg said that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their claims.
“While the precise degree of risk and specific harms that plaintiffs might suffer in this case may be debatable, there is no real question that it includes the possibility of irreparable injury," the judge wrote.
The ruling is yet another blow – at least temporarily – to a White House that has put forth multiple policies to stem the tide of asylum seekers. It also comes a day after the resignation of former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen, who was reportedly pushed out after the president blamed her for being unable to stop the flow of asylum seekers.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. They argued the policy violates the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and international human rights protocols not to return people to dangerous countries.
“The court strongly rejected the Trump administration’s unprecedented and illegal policy of forcing asylum seekers to return to Mexico without hearing their claims,” Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement. "Try as it may, the Trump administration cannot simply ignore our laws in order to accomplish its goal of preventing people from seeking asylum in the United States.”
As of Friday, 169 migrants had been returned to Mexico from Texas, according to Enrique Valenzuela, the director of Ciudad Juárez’s Centro de Atención a Migrantes, a migrant transition facility operated by the Chihuahua state government.
Rabinovitz told the Tribune that asylum seekers who have already been returned to Mexico under the program won’t be required to return there after their first court appearance in the United States. But it’s unclear whether they will be able to return to the United States earlier than that.
“They cannot be sent back to Mexico, assuming this injunction holds,” she said. “But we’re going to have to explore if there is some way to get them relief sooner [than the court date].”