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ACLU sues Trump administration over its 'safe third country' agreements

Migrants leave Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, by taking a raft on the Suchiate River to Tecun Uman, Guatemala on May 9, 2019. Photo by Ariana Drehsler/UPI
Migrants leave Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, by taking a raft on the Suchiate River to Tecun Uman, Guatemala on May 9, 2019. Photo by Ariana Drehsler/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 16 (UPI) -- The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging the Trump administration's so-called safe third country agreements with South American nations, accusing them of being in violation of U.S law.

In July, President Donald Trump signed an asylum cooperative agreement with Guatemala, signifying it is safe for refugees. Due to the agreement, asylum-seekers who pass through Guatemala before making it to the U.S. southern border must first apply for refugee status there.

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The Trump administration has inked similar agreements with Honduras and El Salvador, countries the ACLU says do not meet the United States' definition of safe as they are "plagued by epidemic violence, instability and ill-equipped asylum systems."

"The nations that have signed ACAs so far -- Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras -- are impoverished, unstable and among the most dangerous places in the world," the ACLU said in its filing. "Known collectively as Central America's Northern Triangle, they have extremely high murder rates, rampant gender-based violence and virtually no ability to receive asylum seekers."

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All three countries also produced large numbers of refugees themselves based on these conditions, it added.

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"The government's willingness to sign ACAs with these countries illustrates that its true goal is not to promote burden sharing while ensuring the safety of refugees. Rather the rule and ACAs simply turn away asylum seeks and pass the buck to other countries, regardless of what happens to the individuals," it said.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU with the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and Human Rights First, claims the Trump administration's agreements violate various immigration and refugee laws, including a provision that requires a safe third country to be equipped to provide asylum seekers "access to full and fair" procedures for asylum, which the three countries do not.

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"The Trump administration has created a deadly game of musical chairs that leaves desperate refugees without a safe haven, in violation of U.S. and international law," said Katrina Eiland, an attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "The administration is illegally trying to turn away asylum seekers and pass the buck to other countries that can't protect them."

The lawsuit's main plaintiff, U.T., is a gay El Salvadorian man who fled his country for the U.S. after being threatened by the notorious MS-13 gang.

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He traveled through Guatemala, where he was subjected to homophobic harassment, before making it to the U.S. border where officials told him he was to be removed to Guatemala where he fears persecution, according to the lawsuit.

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Defendants include U.S. Attorney General William Barr and officials from the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and several others.

"The administration's policy is as senseless as it is unlawful and puts asylum seekers directly in harm's way," said Blaine Bookey, co-legal director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies. "By sending vulnerable people to Guatemala, the administration makes a mockery of the United States' obligations to protect the persecuted, gutting the U.S. asylum system beyond recognition."

When Trump signed the agreement with Guatemala, he said it would put "coyotes and the smugglers out of business."

The lawsuit is the latest to be filed against the Trump administration concerning its immigration policies.

On Wednesday, a federal judge issued an injunction to prevent Trump from allowing states and cities to turn away refugees.

A day earlier, the Trump administration filed an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court asking it to lift a hold on its new immigration rules that would deny immigration status to those who rely on public assistance such as Medicaid and food stamps.

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