July 12, 2017, Los Angeles – Today an immigrant rights group and several asylum seekers filed a class action lawsuit against officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in a federal district court in California, challenging the government’s unlawful practice of depriving asylum seekers of access to the U.S. asylum process. The lawsuit was brought by the Los Angeles and Tijuana-based organization Al Otro Lado, Inc. and individual asylum seekers who are collectively represented by the American Immigration Council, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and an international law firm. The plaintiffs allege that, in violation of U.S. and international law, CBP and DHS are systematically forcing individuals fleeing persecution to return to countries where they face grave violence and the risk of death.
“For years, Al Otro Lado has documented human rights violations by CBP at our Southern Border, including against women and children asylum seekers. Since the election of Donald Trump in November, CBP has been emboldened to violate domestic and international law by threatening, misleading, and outright rejecting bona fide asylum seekers, placing their lives and the lives of those assisting them in grave danger,” said Erika Pinheiro, Policy and Technology Director for Al Otro Lado.
The lawsuit documents numerous cases in which CBP officers denied asylum seekers at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border the right to seek protection in the United States. This illegal conduct included falsely representing to individuals that asylum is no longer available in the United States, that asylum seekers need permission from the Mexican government to seek asylum, or that asylum seekers must apply at other locations. In some cases, CBP officers threatened and falsely told asylum seekers that if they did not abandon their effort to obtain asylum, they would lose custody of their children.
“The government’s flagrant violations of the law fly in the face of our country’s history of providing refuge to victims of persecution,” according to Melissa Crow, Legal Director of the American Immigration Council. “The shameless tactics used by CBP illustrate the agency’s disregard for the legal protections afforded asylum seekers. We can and must do better.”
The government’s illegal conduct is occurring as the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are experiencing levels of violence not seen since civil wars wracked the region decades ago. This type of violence and corruption is not limited to the Northern Triangle, but also is experienced by individuals fleeing Mexico. Vulnerable individuals, including women and unaccompanied children, are being driven to seek protection in the United States. CBP’s unlawful conduct can constitute a death sentence for asylum seekers, many of whom are being actively pursued during their dangerous journeys to the border.
“Migrants fleeing violence and persecution have the fundamental right to seek asylum in the United States under both U.S. and international law,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director Baher Azmy. “Given these systematic violations, which are occurring in the midst of the Trump administration’s broader attacks on immigrants, the courts must take on their duty and order the administration simply to follow the law.”
Today’s filing is preceded by a complaint submitted by the American Immigration Council and other immigrants’ rights groups to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General and Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in January 2017. That complaint illustrated a then-growing trend of CBP officers turning away asylum seekers. Since that time, the trend has continued.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.