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Civil rights group challenges Trump asylum deals with Central American countries

A lawsuit filed by the ACLU claims the agreements "unlawfully slam our nation’s doors on people fleeing horrific violence and other forms of persecution."
Migrants walk along a highway in hopes of reaching the distant United States, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on Jan. 15, 2020.Delmer Martinez / AP

The American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights groups filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday challenging agreements allowing the Trump administration to send asylum-seekers to Central American countries, arguing such deals place migrants “among the most dangerous places in the world.”

In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the groups are seeking to block the government from enforcing asylum agreements reached with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that permit sending migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to those countries to seek refuge there instead.

“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,” the ACLU wrote in a statement. “These countries are plagued by epidemic violence, instability, and ill-equipped asylum systems.”

Only one agreement has been implemented so far, in Guatemala, where the administration has sent more than 100 asylum-seekers fleeing El Salvador and Honduras.

The new agreements “unlawfully slam our nation’s doors on people fleeing horrific violence and other forms of persecution by denying them the right to apply for asylum in the United States and shipping them to dangerous countries where there is virtually no chance they will find refuge,” the lawsuit said.

“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,” Katrina Eiland, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement. “The administration is illegally trying to turn away asylum seekers and pass the buck to other countries that can’t protect them.”

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of several asylum-seekers who were sent to Guatemala under the agreement, as well as organizations who advocate for migrants.

According to the complaint, one plaintiff, identified as U.T., is a gay man from El Salvador who fled the country because of threats of gang violence and threats to his safety because of his sexual orientation. U.T. was sent to Guatemala after going to the U.S to seek asylum, despite being subjected to homophobic slurs while passing through the country on his journey north and telling officials he feared for his safety because of his sexual orientation, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said U.T. decided to apply for asylum in Guatemala but was told by officials it was unsafe there for gay people and that he should go to Mexico instead.

M.H., a mother from Honduras, sought asylum in the U.S. with her daughter after her common-law husband and sister-in-law were both killed by local gangs and she herself was threatened, according to the lawsuit.

She and her daughter were sent by U.S. officials to Guatemala, despite explaining she had received a threatening text message during a visit to Guatemala, according to the complaint. Feeling unsafe and unable to support herself in Guatemala, the two returned temporarily to Honduras, according to the suit.

“The rule makes a mockery of our national obligation not to return asylum seekers to violence and persecution,” said Richard Caldarone, litigation counsel at the Tahirih Justice Center. The center is an organizational plaintiff in the case.

“The rule allows the government to deport asylum seekers who have left everything behind in search of safety — including women fleeing rape and severe domestic violence and families fleeing persecution —to Guatemala, even if they have no ties to that country and are in serious danger there,” Caldarone said.

Department of Homeland Security Spokesperson Heather Swift said in a statement that while the agency cannot comment on litigation, “the U.S. Government and the Government of Guatemala remain committed to the asylum cooperative agreement and stand behind the integrity of the program.”

The U.S. has a so-called “safe third country” agreement with Canada, in which both countries agree their asylum systems are robust and migrants traveling between those borders are told to seek refuge in the country where they first arrived.

Asylum is a form of humanitarian relief recognized under international law. As a signatory to an international asylum treaty, the U.S. has a legal obligation to provide protection and certain rights to people who arrive at the border seeking asylum.

President Donald Trump praised the deal with Guatemala when it was signed in July, calling it a “landmark agreement” that “will put coyotes and smugglers out of business.”

The administration has argued the agreement would end “abuse” of the asylum system from migrants with fraudulent claims.