SAN DIEGO -- A Trump administration immigration policy that requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases wind through U.S. courts was blocked and then reinstated by a court in the matter of hours, creating chaos at border crossings, courtrooms and legal offices.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put the policy on hold midday Friday, delivering a setback to a policy that has become one of President Donald Trump's signature efforts to restrict immigration.
But by the end of the day, the court allowed the program to go back into effect after the Justice Department argued that its suspension will prompt migrants to overrun the border and endanger national security. The White House argued that the suspension of the policy would overwhelm the nation's immigration system, damage relations with the government of Mexico and increase the risk of outbreak from the new coronavirus.
Customs and Border Protection closed one border crossing leading into El Paso after the initial decision. Government attorneys said immigration lawyers had begun demanding that asylum seekers be allowed in the United States, with one insisting that 1,000 people be allowed to enter at one location.
The program was instituted last year and has sent about 60,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico. Immigration lawyers and advocates say the program is a humanitarian disaster, subjecting migrants to violence, kidnapping and extortion in dangerous Mexican border cities. Hundreds more have been living in squalid encampments just across the border.
The immediate response by immigrants and their lawyers to the initial decision Friday reflects the growing frustration on the part of asylum seekers who have been waiting for months in areas of Mexico that even the U.S. State Department urges people not to visit because of crime and kidnapping.
Representatives from the group Human Rights First hand-delivered a copy of the decision Friday to CBP officers at a bridge connecting Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Lawyers were hoping to get their clients before U.S. immigration court judges.
Blocking the program has become a top priority for immigrant advocates. Maya Ivars, an attorney for Al Otro Lado, a LA-based legal advocacy group, said volunteer lawyers from around the country booked flights to San Diego after the policy was blocked.
A Venezuelan mother showed up at a border crossing in Tijuana with her 1-year-old son Friday after an attorney assisting her on her asylum bid texted her about the policy being halted. She came immediately to the border to ask border inspectors that she be allowed in the U.S., arriving with about a dozen families — about 30 people total -- around the same time the court suspended its own order.
A government official told an attorney for the group to wait at the turnstile gates to the U.S.
Liliana González, 32, got a phone call from an attorney Friday that the policy was halted and that she should pack her belongings. Her husband and three children, ages 13, 6 and 4, packed their bags and a suitcase and checked out of their migrant shelter.
Friday’s developments caused whiplash.
“It’s somewhat confusing,” Gonzalez said. “You believe, you don’t believe. Let’s see what God says. Let’s see what the law says.”
The family fled gang threats in El Salvador and has been living in Tijuana for a year, waiting more than seven months just to file an initial claim. Their first court hearing in San Diego was Feb. 18.
The decision interrupted some court cases. Immigration Judge Philip Law in San Diego delayed a final hearing on a Honduran man's asylum case to April 17 after a government attorney couldn’t answer his questions about the effect of ruling. The attorney said she asked her supervisor how to address the ruling and that he didn’t know what to do either.
In El Paso, an administrator came to tell a judge of the ruling as he heard the case of a Central American mother and her partner. The couple cried when they learned they could get into the U.S. with restrictions. The couple and their two young children were put into government detention to wait for the next steps in their case.
“Do you guys understand that?” Judge Nathan Herbert asked through an interpreter. “There was a pretty significant change in the law in the middle of your testimony.”
The three-judge panel told the government to file written arguments by the end of Monday and for the plaintiffs to respond by the end of Tuesday.
ACLU attorney Judy Rabinovitz called the suspension of Friday's order "a temporary step."
“We will continue working to permanently end this unspeakably cruel policy,” she said.
Christopher Landau, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said in a court filing that halting the policy creates "substantial risk of immediate chaos on the border."
The ambassador said the policy is critical to deterring “uncontrolled of third-country migrants through Mexico to the United States” and that halting it would encourage more asylum-seekers to come and “obliterate the substantial progress that both countries have made over the last year.”
The “Remain in Mexico” policy, known officially as "Migrant Protection Protocols," took effect in January 2019 in San Diego and gradually spread across the southern border. About 60,000 people have been sent back to wait for hearings, and officials believe it is a big reason why illegal border crossings plummeted about 80% from a 13-year high in May.
Asylum has been granted in less than 1% of the roughly 35,000 Remain in Mexico cases that have been decided. Only 5% are represented by attorneys, many of whom are reluctant to visit clients in Mexico.
Judge William Fletcher, writing the majority, sided with the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups who argued the policy violates international treaty obligations against sending people back to a country where they are likely to be persecuted or tortured.
Fletcher agreed the government set the bar too high for asylum-seekers to persuade officers that they should be exempt from the policy and didn't provide enough time for them to prepare for interviews or consult lawyers.
Fletcher quoted at length asylum-seekers who reported being assaulted and victimized in Mexico, saying it was “enough — indeed, far more than enough” to undercut the government's arguments.
Fletcher was joined by Judge Richard Paez, who were both appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton. Judge Ferdinand Fernandez, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, dissented.
The appeals court in San Francisco also decided to keep another major Trump policy on hold, one that denies asylum to anyone who enters the U.S. illegally from Mexico.
The chaotic day at the border comes at a time when the Trump administration has won a series of favorable rulings in the court to allow its hard-line immigration policies to remain in effect. There's also an intense fight over the use of injunctions like the one that briefly put the Remain in Mexico policy on hold.
The Supreme Court has allowed Trump to divert Defense Department money to border wall construction, backed rules disqualifying more people from green cards if they use government benefits and upheld a travel ban affecting several Muslim-majority countries.