Trump can make asylum seekers wait in Mexico, appeals court rules

Suaniy Gomez, 9, of Honduras, with a plate of donated food, stands with other migrants in December in front of a shelter in Tijuana.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

A federal appeals court says the Trump administration can force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for court hearings while the policy is challenged in court.

The order Tuesday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a decision by a San Francisco judge that would have blocked the policy gave the president a temporary victory on the issue.

The case must still be considered by a lower court in San Francisco and could end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.


U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg ruled April 8 that the policy should be halted while the lawsuit proceeds.

Allowing the policy to remain in effect in the meantime lets the administration carry out an unprecedented change to U.S. asylum practices.

The policy was challenged by 11 Central Americans and legal advocacy groups that argued it jeopardized asylum seekers by forcing them to stay in Mexico, where crime and drug violence are prevalent.

Seeborg agreed and said the policy should be halted because it failed to evaluate the dangers migrants faced in Mexico.

The administration introduced its “Migrant Protection Protocols” policy on Jan. 29 in San Diego before expanding it to Calexico and El Paso. Homeland Security officials have said they planned to sharply expand enforcement along the entire border with Mexico.

The policy was introduced to deal with a growing number of asylum-seeking families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador arriving at the U.S. border with Mexico. Under a court order, children generally cannot be detained more than 20 days, which has led to widespread releases of families almost immediately after they are stopped by authorities.

The January launch followed months of delicate talks between senior U.S. and Mexican officials that culminated in dual announcements of broad outlines of the policy after a meeting in November in Houston. Both sides characterized it as a unilateral move by the Trump administration and Mexican officials have made clear that they do not endorse the policy.

The three-judge appeals court panel cited Mexico’s position to reject the argument that asylum seekers were at risk in Mexico. The judges said the “likelihood of harm is reduced somewhat by the Mexican government’s commitment to honor its international law obligations and to grant humanitarian status and work permits to individuals returned” under the Migrant Protection Protocols.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies sued over the policy.

Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said comments by two of the judges give reason to believe that the policy will eventually be halted.

“Asylum seekers are being put at serious risk of harm every day that the forced return policy continues,” he said.