Border Patrol Hit With Lawsuit for Turning Away Asylum-Eligible Refugees at U.S. Border

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Abigail’s husband disappeared in May after he refused to let a Central Mexico drug cartel use his tractor-trailer to transport drugs. When she reported his disappearance to Mexico authorities, the same cartel abducted her and her two small children. If they wanted to live, they told her, her family would have to leave the country.

Dinora faced a similar threat in Honduras by gang members who had held her and her 17-year-old daughter hostage for three days, repeatedly raping each of them in front of the other. They were told they’d be killed if they didn’t leave.

And after the body of Carolina’s brother-in-law, a high-ranking police officer, was found dismembered in several garbage bags in Mexico, she and her three young children also fled the country in fear of their lives.

The stories that drive Latino citizens to seek asylum in the United States are dark, often riddled with death threats from drug cartels, gangs and corrupt law enforcement officials. easily inconceivable by Americans. But the callousness these families have faced from U.S. border officials at the U.S.-Mexico border in the past year has become equally cruel, according to the immigration rights organizations that filed a class action lawsuit against the federal government Wednesday.

The complaint accuses U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers of systematically denying asylum to hundreds of immigrants with legitimate, life-threatening reasons to fear returning to their home country. Filed in a California federal court by the American Immigration Council and Council for Constitutional Rights, the suit says CBP has not only violated federal law by turning refugees away, but also breaks international human rights law.

“Asylum seekers...have fled persecution, violence and death, and face grave and immediate danger to their lives if denied access to the asylum process — a system specifically designed to protect refugees like them,” the complaint reads.

The attorneys use anecdotal evidence from a growing list of plaintiffs (including Abigail, Carolina and Dinora) to back up their sweeping claims. Multiple times, plaintiffs who arrived at a border entry point were allegedly told they didn’t qualify for asylum and warned that if they crossed the border, they’d be thrown in jail — and their kids dispersed among foster homes. Some were told to ask the Mexican government for help, or forced to sign unclear all-English documents, or to testify in front of a video camera that they actually didn’t want asylum. Other border patrol agents falsely told them that the U.S. was no longer accepting asylum requests from Central America or that “Donald Trump just signed new laws saying there is no asylum for anyone” (that never happened).

The actual law that allows asylum, called the Immigration and Nationality Act, gives any noncitizen who arrives in the U.S. the right to apply for asylum. An individual's access to the asylum process, according to the complaint, is “not discretionary.”

“CBP officials themselves are not authorized to evaluate, grant or reject an individual’s asylum claim,” it reads. It’s the job of an asylum official, not a border patrol agent to decides if an asylum-seekers fear is credible,

Immigration attorneys across the country (not just those who filed suit) have tracked a significant increase in CBP’s disregard to asylum claims along the border in just the past year. But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who oversees CBP, said in a Wednesday statement that nothing has changed in the way the department handles asylum cases.

Since the attorneys behind the case believe there are hundreds of immigrants who’ve been illegally turned away at the border, they’re asking the federal judge to give their case class action status.

“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,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director Baher Azmy in a Wednesday statement.


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