Class-action lawsuit filed against Trump administration’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy

Immigration

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A class-action lawsuit has been filed in Southern California against the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, also known as The “Remain in Mexico” policy, alleging that disabled migrants were incorrectly put into the program that forces them to wait in Mexico during their months-long U.S. asylum hearing process.

Several nonprofits representing dozens of asylum-seekers filed the lawsuit on Monday afternoon in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. It is believed to be the first class-action lawsuit challenging MPP as conducting discriminatory practices on the basis of disability and defendants “(continuing) to refuse to exempt” disabled migrants from the program, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the Trump administration is violating the Administrative Procedures Act by failing to abide by its own stated policy, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of at least 22 disabled migrants and their families by the Texas Civil Rights Project, and the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, and with support from the nonprofits Lawyers for Good Government Foundation, and Al Otro Lado.

Plaintiffs include migrants with physical and mental conditions, including a 14-year-old amputee; a 34-year-old woman with a brain tumor; a 13-year-old with only one lung; a 7-year-old with a heart murmur; a 47-year-old woman with vision loss; a 7-year-old with seizures; a 9-year-old boy with autism and epilepsy; and a deaf 20-year-old man.

Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf speaks to media during a ceremony in McAllen, Texas, on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. At far left is CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

A judge has not certified the class for the lawsuit as of Tuesday. The lawsuit was filed in California “because the complaint includes folks returned to Mexico throughout the Borderlands, not just through Texas,” Texas Civil Rights Project Press Manager Ivy Le told Border Report.

“The ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is inherently unfit and violent for any asylum seeker, but it is particularly dangerous, and unlawful, for those living with disabilities,” said Erin Thorn Vela, senior lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, based in San Juan, Texas. “Our lawsuit is demanding that the Trump administration comply with its own stated policy. But let’s be clear, this policy has created a humanitarian catastrophe for tens of thousands of people who have the legal right to seek asylum but have been effectively barred from that right by the actions of this administration.” 

Under MPP, DHS officials have the right to exempt migrants from “vulnerable populations on a case-by-case basis,” according to DHS’s website. But Monday’s lawsuit cites another case filed in May in Massachusetts against MPP in which a document called the “Muster MPP Guiding Principles” was entered into evidence, and which states that migrants “with known physical and mental health issues” shall not be placed in MPP.

Charlene D’Cruz of Lawyers for Good Government, is seen on Dec. 22, 2020, at a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas, where hundreds of asylum-seekers placed in the MPP program have lived since July 2019. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“After countless hours imploring Customs and Border Protection to protect our clients with disabilities or severe and emergent medical needs by processing their asylum hearings safely in the United States, it was clear we needed to take additional action.” said Charlene D’Cruz, director of Project Corazon Border Rights Program at Lawyers for Good Government. “We’re honored to partner with this esteemed group of immigration advocates and attorneys to bring this lawsuit, enforcing critical protections for those with disabilities and their legal right to seek asylum.”

About 600 migrants placed in MPP currently are living in a filthy tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, after being sent there to wait during their U.S. immigration proceedings. Early last year, the camp had upwards of 4,000 asylum-seekers, but that number dwindles now by the day as many migrants have left since no U.S. immigration hearings are being held during the current coronavirus pandemic, and no new migrants are being added to the camp. Volunteers tell Border Report there are only about 600 migrants now living in the camp.

ABOVE: A migrant family is seen in their tent on Jan. 17, 2020, in Matamoros, Mexico. BELOW: A wheelchair is seen outside a group of tents located in the camp, where at the time about 3,000 asylum-seekers lived, many placed there by the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” or Migrant Protection Protocols program. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report file photos)

since the Trump administration in July 2019 began implementing MPP, Border Report has visited the camp numerous times and has seen wheelchairs in the camp, as well as disabled children who were blind and deaf, and adults with severe impairments.

Prior to travel restrictions implemented to halt the spread of COVID-19, D’Cruz regularly waited on the Gateway International Bridge pleading with CBP officials to allow exemptions to certain families with health and mental issues.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in January was part of a delegation of 17 federal lawmakers who toured the camp and successfully petitioned for the release of a 6-year-old special needs Salvadoran girl who was living in the camp.

If elected president, former Vice President Joe Biden has said he would dismantle the MPP program.

CBP Commissioner Morgan, who visited South Texas last week with Wolf, praised the program, saying “MPP was the driving factor that drove the end of catch-and-release and through these network of initiatives and policies and tools we’ve been able to regain the integrity back into the immigration system.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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