Trump administration seeks to halt ruling over asylum policy

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The Trump administration asked an appeals court Friday to let it continue returning asylum seekers to Mexico, hours before a U.S. judge’s order was set to go into effect blocking the unprecedented change to the U.S. asylum process.

Judge Richard Seeborg’s ban was set to go into effect at 5 p.m. Pacific time, but the government has now asked an appeals court to keep the policy in place while it is litigated. It’s unclear when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would rule on the government’s request.

Either way, immigration attorneys who had argued the policy was putting the lives of asylum seekers at risk by forcing them to wait in violence-plagued Mexico said the ruling was already having an effect.

Since the judge issued his order, immigration officials stopped returning asylum seekers south of the border after they attended their hearings in the United States.

“I haven’t heard of anyone who’s been sent back since the judge’s order on Monday,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Judy Rabinovitz.

The order marked another defeat to President Donald Trump’s intent to radically alter U.S. immigration policies. Families seeking asylum typically have been released in the U.S. with notices to appear in court.

The new policy started in January at the nation’s busiest border crossing in San Diego and the government was starting to expand it.

At a hearing in El Paso, Texas, on Wednesday, Nicolas Palazzo, an attorney for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, told a judge that his Salvadoran client feared returning to Mexico.

In similar cases in San Diego, Department of Homeland Security attorneys said authorities would interview the asylum seeker to determine if fears of Mexico were credible enough to avoid going back. But attorneys on Wednesday assured a judge that the man would remain in the United States, signaling a change ahead of Friday afternoon’s ban.

The Mexican government says more than 1,300 people were returned to Mexico under the program.

If the policy remains blocked, it’s unclear whether asylum seekers will have to wait until their next hearing date in U.S. courts to return to the United States, or if they will be allowed to simply appear at a border crossing before then, Rabinovitz said.

The order came after a lawsuit by 11 Central Americans and legal advocacy groups who argued the lives of asylum seekers were being put at risk by forcing them to stay in Mexico, where crime and drug violence are prevalent.

The judge agreed, saying the policy lacks sufficient protections to ensure migrants don’t face “undue risk to their lives or freedom.”

After the ruling, Trump tweeted that the ruling was “unfair to the U.S.”

The Trump administration says the policy responds to a crisis at the southern border that has overwhelmed the ability of immigration officials to detain migrants. Growing numbers of families are fleeing poverty and gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Attorneys representing asylum seekers say the government is ignoring the law to try and simply stop immigrants who have a legal right to be in the United States.

“These people are facing very serious dangers in Mexico — including the danger that they just might be sent back to their home country,” Rabinovitz said. “That’s not the way we should be treating asylum seekers. …. We’re glad the court is standing up to the Trump administration and saying ‘no, you’ve got to follow the law.'”

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Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in El Paso contributed to this report.