A US judge on Monday issued an injunction halting the Trump administration’s policy of sending some asylum seekers back across the southern border to wait out their deportation cases in Mexico.
The ruling is slated to take effect on Friday, according to the order by US District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco. The preliminary injunction will apply nationwide.
The ruling removes at least temporarily a controversial Trump administration strategy aimed at slowing a flood of immigrants, many of them families from Central America, that swelled last month to the highest level in a decade.
Because of limits on how long children are legally allowed to be held in detention, many of the families are released to await US immigration court hearings, a process that can take years because of ballooning backlogs.
In response, the Trump administration in January started sending some migrants to wait out their US court dates in Mexican border cities, under a policy known as Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP.
The Department of Homeland Security said last week that it planned to expand the programme.
A US Department of Justice spokesman declined to comment. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Seeborg said his ruling turned on the narrow question of whether the Trump administration had followed administrative law in implementing the policy.
“The legal question is not whether the MPP is a wise, intelligent, or humane policy, or whether it is the best approach for addressing the circumstances the executive branch contends constitute a crisis,” wrote Seeborg.
The judge said the government will permit the 11 plaintiffs in the case to enter the United States beginning on Sunday. He said the government still retained the right to detain the asylum-seekers pending the outcome of their case.
MPP was rolled out in January. The government argued it was needed because so many asylum seekers spend years living in the US and never appear for their court hearings before their claim is denied and an immigration judge orders them to be deported.
MPP was based on a decades-old law that says that migrants who enter from a contiguous country can be returned there to wait out their deportation case, although the provision had never been used in the way the administration has applied it.
Civil rights groups sued, arguing the policy violated US and international law by returning refugees to dangerous border towns where they would be unable to get legal counsel or notices of hearings.
The plaintiffs include legal service organisations and migrants who fled Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to escape what they said was extreme violence, rape and death threats.
Apprehensions by border agents were on track to top 100,000 in March, the highest level in a decade, according to the US Customs and Border Protection.
While irregular border crossings were higher in the early 2000s, most of those apprehended at that time were single men, often from Mexico.
Monday’s ruling comes a day after Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned from her post. Nielsen is slated to leave on Wednesday.
Nielsen spearheaded Trump’s controversial immigration policies, including MPP. Kevin McAleenan, currently commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), will take over as the acting secretary. He will be the fourth person to helm the agency under Trump.