WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigrant Justice Center, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, and Human Rights First filed a federal lawsuit today challenging the Trump administration’s policies regarding so-called “safe third country” agreements with Guatemala and other nations that force people fleeing for their lives to seek asylum in the same dangerous region they fled.

The policies block asylum seekers from ever receiving a chance at asylum in the U.S. They are instead being sent to Guatemala — and soon to El Salvador and Honduras. These countries are plagued by epidemic violence, instability, and ill-equipped asylum systems.

People have the legal right to apply for asylum in the U.S. unless they can be sent to another safe country via a valid agreement. However, the country must first provide “access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum” in order to qualify as safe. These countries fail to meet that standard.

“The Trump administration has created a deadly game of musical chairs that leaves desperate refugees without a safe haven, in violation of U.S. and international law,” said Katrina Eiland, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “The administration is illegally trying to turn away asylum seekers and pass the buck to other countries that can’t protect them.”

The lawsuit, U.T. v. Barr, was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. It cites violations of the Refugee Act, Immigration and Nationality Act, and Administrative Procedure Act. Plaintiffs are asylum seekers who fled to the U.S. and were unlawfully removed to Guatemala, as well as organizations that serve asylum seekers. They include:

  • U.T. is a gay man from El Salvador who fled his country for the U.S. after being threatened by an MS-13 gang member. He fears he will be attacked or killed for his sexual orientation if he tries to live openly as a gay man in his home country. He traveled through Guatemala en route to the U.S. and was subjected to homophobic harassment in Guatemala. When he got to the U.S., border officials said he was being removed to Guatemala, where he also fears homophobic persecution.
  • M.H. is a Honduran mom who fled to the U.S. with her young daughter. Her common-law husband and her sister-in-law worked in the transportation business in Honduras and were forced to pay local gangs in order to work. They were both murdered. Fearing for their safety after being threatened, M.H. and her daughter fled to the U.S., only to be sent back into danger.
  • Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center (“Las Americas”) is a nonprofit legal services organization based in El Paso, Texas, that is dedicated to serving the legal needs of low-income immigrants, including asylum seekers. 
  • The Tahirih Justice Center is the largest national direct service and policy advocacy organization focused on assisting immigrant women and girls fleeing violence.

“The plaintiffs’ cases illustrate how callous the Trump administration’s attacks on the asylum system have become, and how far we have drifted from our own values as a country,”  said Ruben Loyo, litigation attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “Because of this illegal rule and the administration’s perverted application of the ‘safe third country’ label, the U.S. is slamming the door on individuals fleeing life-threatening conditions and sending them back to a country where they have no guarantee of safety and security. Instead, the plaintiffs and other asylum seekers often have no choice but to return to their home country where they are exposed to further harm and displacement.”

Defendants include U.S. Attorney General William Barr, as well as other officials from the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, among others.

“The administration’s policy is as senseless as it is unlawful and puts asylum seekers directly in harm’s way. By sending vulnerable people to Guatemala, the administration makes a mockery of the United States’ obligations to protect the persecuted, gutting the U.S. asylum system beyond recognition,” said Blaine Bookey, co-legal director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies.

Hardy Vieux, vice president/legal at Human Rights First, added, “The Trump administration wants to return the persecuted to their persecutors rather than allow these vulnerable people to seek asylum in our country, the land of immigrants. Not only does this violate the law, it is wrong. There is nothing great about a country that betrays its values in the name of stoking fear and demonizing the innocent. We are taking the administration to court because, politics aside, the law still stands for fairness and justice in our country. Most of us know this; some of us need reminding."

Complaint: https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/complaint-ut-v-barr

Case details: https://www.aclu.org/cases/ut-v-barr

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