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Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ Policy Is Illegal Under International Law

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As the Trump administration faces public outrage and congressional scrutiny over its many immigration crises—from separated families, to abuse of imprisoned detainees, to catastrophically overburdened courts—the Trump administration’s latest fix is to just keep people from reaching the border altogether. The “Remain in Mexico” program launched by the administration at some major border crossing points in late January, forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, even after petitioning US border authorities for relief, while they work to process their asylum claims. The measure purports to be a less messy way of “managing” the border; in reality, it’s an illegal abrogation of US obligations under international law.

In a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, Tahirih Justice Center, and other human-rights advocates, several migrants who have been turned away at the border seek to challenge Trump’s rule as a massive violation of both domestic and international law.

Advocates argue that a policy of preemptively barring people from entry even after they make a legitimate plea for asylum marks a sharp departure from past border-control policies. “It’s obviously part and parcel of Trump’s policy just to stop asylum seekers from coming here,” said Judy Rabinowitz, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. Moreover, she warned, since the administration is moving toward expanding Remain in Mexico from its current site at the Tijuana–San Diego border crossing to cover other border areas, “If this model were to take off…you’re just basically saying, asylum seekers can’t come here, and there will be refugee camps in Mexico.”

Archi Pyati, chief of policy of Tahirih, sees Remain in Mexico as part of a spectrum of brutally exclusionary policies under Trump: “Tactics such as detention, separation, prosecution, and forcing people to stay in Mexico are all designed to deter migration and…leave people fleeing persecution who need protection with nowhere to go.”

According to the lawsuit, for the 11 plaintiffs and others subjected to the Remain in Mexico policy, the government has flouted the international humanitarian standards, resulting in “asylum seekers…being returned to Mexico without any meaningful consideration of the dangers they face there.”

The policy effectively outsources the Central American refugee crisis to an unwilling neighbor that is neither responsible for the problem nor capable of absorbing it. As of February 21, 112 people had been sent back to Mexico under the program, but the administration has said that that number will “grow exponentially.” Meanwhile, with migrant families crowding into Mexico’s makeshift border shelters, often traumatized and impoverished from their grueling journey, thousands are wrestling with poverty, unemployment, and lack of stable housing.

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