Human rights groups sued US President Donald Trump’s administration on Thursday over its policy of sending non-Mexican migrants who cross the southern border to seek asylum in the United States back to Mexico to wait while their requests are being processed.
The policy – known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP – announced in December, is aimed at cutting the number of families applying for asylum in the US, a legal process that can take months or years.
The lawsuit filed in US District Court in California by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organisations says the policy puts asylum seekers in danger and violates protections they are entitled to under US and international law.
Serious doubts exist over whether Mexico can keep Central American asylum seekers who are fleeing poverty and crime safe, especially in border towns that are often more violent than the cities they left.
Once back in Mexico, asylum seekers could wait months or years for their immigration cases to be heard. A backlog of more than 800,000 cases is pending in immigration courts.
The decision to start returning non-Mexican asylum seekers to Mexico came as Trump escalated efforts to severely limit the number of migrants and refugees entering and living in the US.
Last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights organisation and other groups filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the Trump administration of using detained migrant children as “bait” to arrest undocumented people.
In January, the Office of Inspector General at the US Department of Health and Human Services said the US government may have separated “thousands more” migrant children from their families than previously known.
The Trump administration implemented a “zero tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute and jail all undocumented border crossers, even those travelling with their children, leading to a wave of family separations last year.
But the auditor said in a report that, prior to the officially announced policy, the government had ramped up separations for other reasons related to a child’s safety and well-being, including separating them from parents with criminal records or lack of proper documents.