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Politics

Internal memos say Trump officials to resume forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico

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A group of about 30 Brazilian migrants who just crossed the border sit on the ground near U.S. Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border in Sunland Park, N.M.
(Paul Ratje / AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration moved Monday to restart a controversial policy that forces Central American asylum seekers to return to Mexico to await adjudication of their claims, an approach dubbed “Remain in Mexico.”

The move came after a federal appeals court in California temporarily lifted an injunction on Friday that had blocked the policy.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials told staff at the agency’s main asylum office in Arlington, Va., on Monday to prepare for asylum seekers to again be sent back across the border, according to emails obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

An internal agency memo on Monday cited Friday’s decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that granted the government’s emergency motion for a stay of a lower court ruling that had blocked the policy. The administration calls the policy “Migrant Protection Protocols.”

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“This means that implementation of MPP may resume pending the ongoing litigation,” the memo reads. “In the meantime we have staff on standby for new referrals.”

Although the legal ruling allowed the administration to again force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed in U.S. courts, authorities did not return any migrants over the weekend.

The appeals court is expected to decide this week whether to extend the temporary stay and allow the Remain in Mexico policy to remain in effect.

“The statute explicitly authorizing the use of the Migrant Protection Protocols has been on the books for more than two decades,” said Alexei Woltornist, a Justice Department spokesman, “and the Department of Justice will robustly defend our ability to use it.”

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The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Under the policy, which then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced in December, authorities have forcibly returned more than 1,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, to Mexico.

The policy’s slow and chaotic rollout frustrated administration officials, frontline immigration officers and advocates alike, and the legal back-and-forth added to the confusion.

The initial court ruling last Monday that blocked further returns came down a day after the president had ousted Nielsen, who’d just called for a border-wide, aggressive expansion of the policy, and launched a purge of Trump’s top Homeland Security officials.

The president also threatened to transfer detained immigrants into so-called “sanctuary cities” in California and elsewhere, despite his own advisors’ warnings that such a move would likely violate the law.

The Mexican government, which has insisted the returns policy is unilateral although it has cooperated so far, issued a careful statement last week rejecting the Trump administration’s suggestion that the policy was part of a “cooperative program extensively negotiated” with Mexican counterparts.

Alan Bersin, who served as a senior Homeland Security official in the Obama administration, says there is “nothing unusual” about the department proceeding with the Remain in Mexico policy while the injunction is lifted.

But Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who argued the initial case against the policy, questioned why the administration would temporarily resume it, given that judges soon could block it again.

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“I’m not surprised by anything the government does at this point, but I’m a little bit surprised why they would make a point of trying to remove more people … when we’re waiting on a decision from the court,” Rabinovitz said.

“People are being harmed by this,” she continued. “And the harm is going to increase exponentially if they can keep expanding this in other places.”

Trump issued rare praise for Friday’s ruling from the 9th Circuit, which he’s often maligned for rejecting a number of his initiatives to crack down on immigration.

“Finally, great news at the Border!” he tweeted.

molly.otoole@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollymotoole


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