New Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration’s ‘Safe-Third Country’ Policy

Supermajority Education Fund

January 22, 2020

M.H. had experienced a number of traumatic events in Honduras in recent years. Her common-law husband and sister-in-law were forced to pay extortion fees to local gangs to operate their transportation business and were then both murdered within a year of each other. In May 2019, M.H. said a man who worked in the same business as her husband and sister-in-law threatened her and her daughter; M.H. was briefly visiting Guatemala in November when she got an “alarming” text from an unknown source who said they “knew she was away from home.” 

It was then that — according to a new lawsuit filed on Jan. 15 by American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigrant Justice Center, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, and Human Rights First — M.H. and her daughter traveled to the U.S. to seek asylum. When they made it to the southern border in December, however, immigration officials told M.H. that thanks to a new Trump administration asylum cooperative agreement, or “ACA,” both she and her daughter would be removed to Guatemala.

Now, M.H. is a plaintiff in U.T. v. Barr, a suit filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. challenging this “ACA,” that allows the administration to send asylum seekers to the “safe third countries” of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — the very countries from which many asylum seekers are fleeing. The lawsuit alleges that the new ACA is “inconsistent” with legal obligations to asylum seekers and requests an injunction to prevent the rule from going into effect as well as an order to vacate their plaintiff’s deportation order. M.H. is one of six plaintiffs who are noncitizens and identified only by their initials. Additionally, the Las America Immigrant Advocacy Center and the Tahirih Justice Center are also listed as plaintiffs.

Before this new ACA went into effect at the end of November 2019, America’s only safe-country agreement was with Canada, a country the lawsuit describes as a “global leader in refugee protection.” The U.S. sent asylum seekers to Canada while continuing to vet their asylum claims. As of Nov. 20, however, the agreement with Guatemala began without a 30-day comment period typical of such new rules. 

“This policy is in no way coming anywhere close to fulfilling the U.S.’ obligation to protect vulnerable alyssum seekers,” Patricia Stottlemyer, litigation associate attorney at Human Rights First, told Supermajority News.

When she presented for asylum, M.H. asked immigration officials for time to find a lawyer and the opportunity to show evidence of the murders and persecution her family had suffered in Honduras and the threats she received when she visited Guatemala. Officials denied her both requests. M.H. and her daughter were “removed” to Guatemala.

“She felt afraid and alone [in Guatemala], so she returned to Honduras, the place she fled from persecution,” said Stottlemyer. “They’re unsure where they can go, where they’ll be safe.”

Read the full complaint, via the ACLU, here.