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ACLU Files Suit Over Access To Lawyers For Asylum-Seekers Being Sent Back To Mexico

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The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against Customs and Border Protection on Tuesday, condemning the treatment of asylum-seekers in the “Remain In Mexico” program. The ACLU says that the migrants are not being allowed to see their lawyers.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 The ACLU has filed another challenge to the Trump administration's remain in Mexico program for asylum seekers. The class action lawsuit claims that migrants seeking asylum are not being able to meet with us attorneys before they are taken for interviews. Johnny me as KPBS reporter max Rivlin, Nadler and max, welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. Tell us about the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. What are they say has been their experience?

Speaker 2: 00:26 So the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are a family of seven from Guatemala who have already been sent back to Mexico under the remain in Mexico program. Um, the father of the family had been separated from them and is being held elsewhere. So this is just the mother and the children. Uh, they've been sent back to Mexico after crossing, presenting for asylum, uh, at the border a few months ago. Uh, these a mermaid in Mexico hearings play out, uh, over a series of months. So a, you have a court date, then you have another court date. Um, and this family, which does have a attorneys, which is very rare, uh, for people in this program, um, has, you know, been able to kind of continue their case and their asylum case, uh, after they claim that they faced extreme amounts of violence and intimidation in Guatemala.

Speaker 1: 01:18 Now, does the ACLU claim attorneys are barred from meeting with asylum seekers who had been returned to Mexico?

Speaker 2: 01:24 So attorneys are not barred from meeting their clients once they've been returned to Mexico, although that poses its own problems. Practicing law in another country is not necessarily a risk lawyers want to take. However, what the ASLU is really, um, kind of, uh, trying to get straightened out in the courts is access to their clients when they're being held by customs and border protection in the days after their hearings, uh, where they're either returned to Mexico or they're not return or they're let into the U S so this is after they appear in court in the U S and they say, I fear returning to Mexico. And then they're given a really vital interview about whether they're going to be returned to Mexico or many people have faced violence there. Here's one of the lawyers for the ACLU, Monica [inaudible], who discusses how difficult it is to actually meet with their clients before these interviews,

Speaker 3: 02:20 lawyers don't have access to their clients. They don't know exactly where their clients are taken. The lawyer's requests for information go on answered. So no, we don't know exactly where they, where they're being held right now.

Speaker 2: 02:30 So basically in the days and weeks after their hearings in court, they are not able to speak with their lawyers. They're being held in Cognito and their lawyers have no idea where they are. And this is not specific just to this family, uh, this family yesterday, what happened to them as they showed up in court and they expressed a fear of return in Mexico and then they were sent back into customs and border protection custody. And their lawyers have no idea where they are. And this is really common in this, um, in this program.

Speaker 1: 03:01 So what kind of latitude would the judge, in this case judge Dana sobre have in ruling on attorney access?

Speaker 2: 03:09 So, um, that is challenging the actual legality, the, the current case that's in front of the ninth circuit that should be actually be decided upon in the next couple of weeks. Um, that's the legality of the program as a whole. This is specifically regarding access to attorneys for clients who are being held in CVP custody. Often they're being held at ports of entry, they're being Peled at border patrol stations, places where there are no meeting rooms for clients to meet with their attorneys, for asylum seekers to speak with legal counsel. So one remedy that [inaudible] could say is you have to hold them in a place that allows for these types of meetings. And other one could be, you have to make an accommodation in the courthouse before the hearing for them to actually meet with their lawyers. So it could take on a lot of different forms. It might not strike down the program as it exists entirely, but could provide a remedy that would make the current program untenable.

Speaker 1: 04:04 And if the name judge Dana subro sounds familiar to people, he has been involved in these, in these cases that are challenging the administration's asylum policies.

Speaker 2: 04:14 Yeah. He was the judge who made the decision on the family separation case, the miss L litigation. Uh, he's been the controlling judge ever since on the settlement that came shortly after that. Uh, and the reason he was able to kind of, um, have such latitude over that decision is because he issued a injunction and a temporary restraining order over those family separations. That's the same thing that the ACLU is asking for here. So as oppose to the situation and um, you know, basically in, uh, the larger challenge to MPP, which is now going through the course and it's going to take a very long time to sort itself out. We, even if we get a decision in the next few months, uh, so Brock could make a decision on this relatively quickly and definitively to change, uh, how the program is being administered

Speaker 1: 05:08 now, what's the ACO use contention that the ability to consult with an attorney is a right. Asylum seekers should have Y.

Speaker 2: 05:16 So they believe, and this is been backed up by the courts, that immigrants deserve due process regardless of, you know, their status, how they came here, um, people in who are being held civilly and civil detention. That's kind of what's going on here. Again, MPP is this, uh, that remain in Mexico. Prayer program is this very murky territory. Um, you know that even if you are being held in these types of places in a border patrol facility, you should be able to have access to lawyers. Access is the important thing because you're not being charged criminally. You are not provided a lawyer. So at the very least, if you do have resources or were able to connect with a nonprofit, you be able to see your lawyer before giving really important life determining interviews, um, where you might not understand what's being asked of you.

Speaker 2: 06:07 You might not understand. Um, what a yes answer is in a situation where they say, do you have fear X, Y, and Z? Things like that. And so that's why the ACLU and other legal organizations are really, really insistent that these immigrants and these asylum seekers have the right to an attorney. What does the government say in response? So customs and border protection, uh, told K PBS that they do not comment on pending litigation. Um, so we don't know. We don't know what the government responds and they haven't filed the responding brief. I'm sure that will be coming in the next couple of days.

Speaker 1: 06:42 And if the judge does have judges abroad, does it alter an injunction in this case? What effect, if any might it have on the entire remain in Mexico policy?

Speaker 2: 06:52 Right. So I think that could be a really thorny issue for the government to try to figure out how to continue running this program that does kind of rely on expediency, on trying to cycle people in and out as quickly as possible and get them into court, get them out back into Mexico or you know, a lot of people do get lost in the system and our how that border patrol stations or, or ports of entry for a very long time. Um, now if you say, okay, well listen, if you're going to bring people in, they have to have access to a lawyer. Um, when will the government accommodate that? W it's already stretched very thin in terms of, um, its treatment and accommodation for individuals. So it's possible that by saying that they have to have access to legal counsel, it'll short circuit the entire program.

Speaker 1: 07:37 I've been speaking with KPBS reporter max Rivlin Adler max. Thank you. Thank you.

Speaker 4: 07:50 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.