SAN DIEGO (AP) — A new effort to speed up initial reviews of asylum claims to within three days denies asylum-seekers rights to consult attorneys, according to the latest legal challenge to the Trump administration's immigration enforcement policies and practices.
The federal lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., challenges fast-track procedures introduced in El Paso, Texas, in early October that U.S. officials say may be expanded to other parts of the U.S. border with Mexico after a trial period.
Asylum-seekers are held in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility with a window of up to about an hour to call family and attorneys, and they have no guarantee of confidentiality, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday. No callback numbers are provided.
CBP facilities are "legal black holes," according to the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and several asylum-seekers who were deported to El Salvador or Mexico after failing an initial screening, known as a credible fear interview.
The fast-track efforts "systematically undermine the procedural safeguards guaranteed to those seeking asylum by rocketing asylum seekers through the credible fear process with no access to counsel," the lawsuit states. "Congress provided for protections for people in credible fear proceedings in order to prevent the United States government from erroneously sending asylum seekers back to places where they face persecution, torture, and possibly death."
The government has processed hundreds of asylum-seekers in El Paso under two pilot programs, one for Mexicans and one for non-Mexicans, according to the lawsuit. The program for non-Mexicans, called Prompt Asylum Case Review, processed 392 people as of Nov. 26 and the one for Mexicans, called Humanitarian Asylum Review Process, processed 137 as of Nov. 27.
The Justice Department declined to comment Friday on the lawsuit. But administration officials have defended a series of new polices that aim to limit asylum claims, many of which they say are frivolous. The U.S. became the world's top destination for asylum-seekers in 2017, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Robert Perez, Custons and Border Patrol's deputy commissioner, said in October that the experiment in El Paso would handle initial screenings within 10 days — including time to appeal an asylum officer's denial to an immigration judge. The goal, he said, was to complete cases within 72 hours, the agency's target for maximum time in custody.
The administration's shifts on asylum policy are being challenged in court on several fronts.
On Friday in San Diego, advocacy groups asked a federal judge to temporarily narrow the scope of recent agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to send asylum-seekers there. Under the bilateral pacts, the U.S. would send asylum-seekers back to those countries if they didn't seek protection there on their way to the U.S. border with Mexico.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups want a temporary restraining order that would exempt anyone from the ban who arrived at the U.S. border before Nov. 19 — when the agreements took effect — but had to wait in Mexico because U.S. authorities said they didn't have enough resources to immediately process their claims.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Oct. 1 on another policy to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico while their cases wind through U.S. immigration courts, which U.S. authorities say has been crucial to a sharp drop in border arrests from a 13-year high in May. The same day, the court heard arguments on a ban on asylum to anyone who crossed the Mexican border illegally, which has been on hold for about a year.