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ACLU files suit to stop immigration pilot programs

The programs deny asylum seekers access to adequate counsel before key interviews with immigration officers, the lawsuit alleges.

A Mexican Soldier patrols the makeshift migrants camp at the base of Paso del Norte International Bridge in Ciudad Juarez ...

EL PASO — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday to stop two U.S. immigration pilot programs that the group alleges strip asylum seekers of their legal rights and instead fast-track them for deportation back to violent countries.

The Prompt Asylum Claim Review and the Humanitarian Asylum Review Process, programs that began in El Paso, deny immigrants access to adequate counsel before their interviews with asylum officers, the ACLU of Texas; ACLU of Washington, D.C.; and ACLU national office allege in the filing. The PACR program generally applies to non-Mexicans, and HARP affects Mexican asylum seekers.

The ACLU offices filed the suit on behalf of Salvadorans and Mexicans who were ordered removed from the U.S. after being placed in the programs. El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center is also listed as a plaintiff. The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C.

The PACR and HARP programs require some asylum seekers be held in Customs and Border Protection facilities, where they are allowed only 30 minutes to contact attorneys or family members by phone.

Under previous practices, asylum seekers were transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, where they were given more time to seek out assistance and could meet with attorneys in person or over the phone before key interviews with asylum officers.

“By forcing asylum seekers to proceed through the credible fear process while essentially incommunicado in CBP custody, without access to counsel, in conditions that otherwise significantly interfere with their ability to have a meaningful credible fear interview, and on a rushed timeline, PACR and HARP result in the erroneous removal of people who are at risk of persecution, torture, and death,” the filing says. There is also no system in place for attorneys or family members to locate people in CBP custody.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the filing.

“Regardless of what stage immigrants are at in their claims, they should know what their rights are, they should be well informed of the process, and advocates like us should always be available and accessible to them,” Linda Corchado, the director of legal services for Las Americas, said in a statement.

The ACLU offices said in a news release that 500 asylum seekers have already been deported under the programs.

In addition to the thousands of Central Americans and Cubans who have arrived to Mexican border cities in recent years, thousands of Mexicans from the southern part of that country began arriving in recent months. Many of them camp near the bridges in squalid tent facilities they’ve constructed while they wait to be processed by American immigration officials.

Attorney Linda Rivas, the executive director at Las Americas, told The Texas Tribune last week that it’s unclear what criteria CBP uses to decide who gets placed in the PACR or HARP programs, or released into the United States while waiting for court hearings.

“We believe that the people who are being subjected to this are the same people who are waiting in the tents, then get called in,” she said.

“Some will be put into this program, and some will be released into the interior of the United States, and some will be detained by ICE,” she added. “What fate you’re going to face is completely arbitrary.”

The ACLU is asking a judge to, among other things, declare the programs unlawful, vacate the removal orders issued for the plaintiffs named in the case, and put on hold the credible fear proceedings for those in the program until they are transferred to ICE custody or granted parole and allowed enough time to seek counsel.

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