New Report Examines Weaponization of Immigration Court System

Advocates Launch Immigration Court Watch App to Ensure Greater Accountability, Transparency.

WASHINGTON, DC – The immigration court system has failed to fulfill the constitutional and statutory promise of fair and impartial case-by-case review, according to a new report released today by Innovation Law Lab and the Southern Poverty Law Center, entitled The Attorney General’s Judges: How the U.S. Immigration Courts Became a Deportation Tool.

Download the press release here.

The report, based on over two years of research and focus group interviews with attorneys and former immigration judges from around the country, links the current crisis of accountability to the Attorney General’s absolute control over the immigration court system.

In conjunction with the report, the groups also announced the launch of an Immigration Court Watch app, which enables court observers to record and upload information on immigration judge conduct to create greater judicial accountability.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the attorney general is required to create an immigration court system in which independent judges decide cases by applying law to the evidence on the record following a full and fair hearing. According to the report, however, today’s immigration courts are plagued by systemic bias and neglect.

“Despite the life-and-death stakes of many immigration cases within the current system, case outcomes have less to do with the rule of law than with the luck of the draw,” said Melissa Crow, Southern Poverty Law Center senior supervising attorney. “Under the Trump administration, the attorneys general have gone even further by actively weaponizing the immigration court system against asylum-seekers.”

The report explains how the Office of Attorney General has created an immigration court system that is biased, inconsistent and driven by political whims. It also examines the conflict that arises when immigration judges, who are expected to be neutral arbiters, are supervised by the United States’ chief law enforcement officer who prioritizes deterrence and deportation of immigrants, instead of an impartial review process.

The report recommends removing the immigration courts from the attorney general’s control and recreating them as Article I courts. To ensure that immigration judges are insulated from political pressures, they must be selected based on merit, receive tenure and be removed only for good cause. The immigration courts must also include more effective mechanisms of internal and appellate accountability.

“One of the key factors driving the immigration court crisis is the failure of judicial accountability,” said Stephen Manning, executive director of Innovation Law Lab. “The new Immigration Court Watch app addresses that lack of accountability, ensures greater transparency and will be a valuable resource for collecting and storing usable data on the pervasive abuses in the immigration court system.”

The new tool will allow data on immigration judge conduct to be gathered and stored in both individual and aggregate forms. This will provide advocates with valuable information to fight systemic patterns of bias and other unlawful court practices. This data can be used to bolster policy recommendations, advocacy and legal strategies.

Advocates, attorneys and other court watchers are encouraged to access the app available here.

“By establishing a presence in immigration courts within their communities and sharing their observations and information, advocates can help us leverage the power of technology, collaboration and strategic alignment to create the first interconnected information system which captures data about due process issues in U.S. immigration courts in real-time,” Manning said.

The report can be found here.

For more information, contact:

Marion Steinfels marionsteinfels@gmail.com / 202-557-0430

Ramon Valdez ramon@innovationlawlab.org / 971-238-1804

The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington, DC, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.

Innovation Law Lab is a nonprofit organization dedicated to upholding the rights of immigrants and refugees. By bringing technology to the fight for justice, Law Lab builds power for lawyers, human rights advocates, and immigrants in hostile immigration court jurisdictions, remote immigration detention facilities, and along the U.S.-Mexico border. For more information, visit www.innovationlawlab.org.

Ninth Circuit allows “Remain in Mexico” policy to stay in effect

May 7, 2019 – In a disappointing decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted the federal government’s emergency motion for a stay pending decision of the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols,” also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy.

This ruling means that, for now, the government may continue to forcibly return asylum seekers to dangerous conditions in Mexico while the federal case, Innovation Law Lab v. McAleenan, is fought in court.

“We disagree with the court’s characterization of Mexico’s commitment to protecting the human rights of those returned under MPP,” said Stephen Manning, Executive Director. “Our experience everyday on the ground at the border, in court, and in the shelters confirms what is apparent to everyone: Remain in Mexico is a lethal policy that pushes vulnerable people into a dangerous places without any due process.”

In February 2019, the Innovation Law Lab and others sued in federal court to prevent the forcible return of asylum seekers without due process. Though a lower court found MPP to be in violation of U.S. law nearly a month ago and issued a preliminary injunction, the injunction was subsequently stayed, allowing the program to move forward. The Trump Administration appealed to the Ninth Circuit seeking permission to continue implementing the MPP.  

Even while ultimately granting the government’s motion for a stay, the panel’s three separate opinions each acknowledged the grim reality that the asylum-seeking plaintiffs in this case “fear substantial injury upon return to Mexico.”

In separate concurrences, Judges William Fletcher and Paul Watford expressed serious reservations about the legality of MPP. Judge Fletcher forcefully explained that the “Government is wrong. Not just arguably wrong, but clearly and flagrantly wrong.” He characterized the government’s arguments as “unprecedented” and based on “an unnatural” and “impossible” reading of the law.

Judge Watford expressed his view that “DHS has adopted procedures so ill-suited to achieving that stated goal as to render them arbitrary and capricious” under the law, and even concluded that “it seems likely that the plaintiffs will succeed in establishing that DHS’s procedures for implementing the MPP are arbitrary and capricious” in certain aspects.

Under Remain in Mexico, thousands of individuals, including families, have been forcibly returned to Mexico without due process. Though the federal government claims asylum seekers are screened for safety concerns prior to return, advocates and asylum officers alike have raised concerns about this process.

A recent report confirms what Innovation Law Lab staff have experienced on the ground: asylum officers are pressured into signing paperwork indicating the asylum seeker will be safe in Mexico. As one officer said, “I’m not adjudicating that case. It’s like someone else sticking their hand inside me, like a glove.” Furthermore, there is no avenue for asylum seekers affected by MPP to challenge the U.S. government’s decision to send them back.

The Trump Administration continues to push other policies to dismantle the asylum process, such as using border patrol officers to screen asylum applicants, instead of trained asylum officers. These policies are cruel and needlessly place the lives of migrants in danger.

Plaintiffs in Innovation Law Lab v. McAleenan include Innovation Law Lab, Central American Resource Center of Northern California, Centro Legal de la Raza, Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco School of Law, Al Otro Lado, Tahirih Justice Center, and 11 asylum seekers affected by the policy in question. Legal counsel is provided by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS).

Read the Ninth Circuit decision here.

Learn more about the background of the suit here.

For media inquiries contact:

Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, 971-801-6047, victoria@innovationlawlab.org

Groups Call for An End to ICE Arrests in Oregon Courthouses

On September 18, 2017, ICE agents trailed and detained a county employee, father, and U.S. citizen as he and his wife left the Washington County courthouse.  Mr. Isirdro Andrade Tafolla grew up in Washington County in the small community of Hillsboro. Once a sleepy rural town, Hillsboro now boasts a growing tech sector and one of the most diverse populations in Oregon. A star soccer player in high school, Mr. Andrade Tafolla is now a cherished soccer coach and has worked as a dedicated county road maintenance employee for over twenty years.

A team of ICE agents were present in the courtroom when Mr. Andrade Tafolla and his wife, Mrs. Renee Selden Andrade, arrived for a routine appearance. The agents then followed the couple and detained Mr. Andrade Tafolla just outside of the courthouse.

The agents were wearing street clothes, including college sweatshirts and jeans, and offered no badges, warrants or other identification.  Driving three unmarked white minivans, they blocked the street to prevent Mr. Andrade Tafolla from leaving in his own vehicle. Here is the exchange:

ACLU Legal Observer [to first ICE agent]: Do you have a warrant? Are you with ICE? Do you have a warrant for arrest? Do you have any identification; do you have any identification that you can show them?
[No response– second ICE agent steps in front of the Legal Observer]
ICE Agent (continues to Mr. Andrade Tafolla): What is your last name?… This picture right here [showing a photo of another man] is you.

Mrs. Selden Andrade:  You are not a part of the Court. We do not know you. Please back away from my husband, please back away from our car before we call the cops… That is not my husband.

ACLU Legal Observer: Does anybody have ID? Does anybody have a warrant?
Mrs. Selden Andrade: No.

Mrs. Selden Andrade: We need to call the police… these random people are approaching us. We have no idea who these people are; we literally walked out of the courtroom and we are being approached.

Since 2017, the number of courthouse-related ICE intrusions like this one has skyrocketed. This unfortunate incident sadly repeats itself throughout the country, as unidentified ICE agents in plainclothes and unmarked cars increasingly use courthouses as a primary site for their deportation objectives.  As in Mr. Andrade Tafolla’s case, the agency often relies on racial profiling to find its targets. The highly public nature of these arrests, and the attendant reporting, has caused widespread fear.

Communities, judges, and elected officials across the country have condemned the practice, but it continues unabated. Just three weeks ago a single father and legal permanent resident was arrested and forcibly removed from the Oregon state courthouse halls while appearing for a minor charge.

Oregonians now join a growing chorus of voices demanding that state court leadership end ICE arrests in and around the courthouse to ensure that the halls of justice remain open to all by asking for a uniform trial court rule prohibiting civil immigration arrests in and around state courthouses.

Reaching Back to Blackstone

Rewind to over a century ago, when famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize a “very ancient” common law doctrine: the privilege against civil arrest at the courthouse. [1] Appealing to the “dignity and authority” of state and federal courts to administer “efficient and evenhanded administration of law and justice,” Darrow persuaded the Court that these arrests offend the judicial process itself. [2] The Stewart Court, quoting a case now two hundred years old, confirmed that fact:

“Courts of justice ought everywhere to be open, accessible, free from interruption, and to cast a perfect protection around every man who necessarily approaches them. The citizen in every claim of right which he exhibits, and every defense which he is obliged to make, should be permitted to approach them, not only without subjecting himself to evil, but even free from the fear of molestation or hindrance.” [3]

Key to the Court’s holding was the recognition that any deterrence of witnesses and parties may be just as damaging to the administration of justice as an arrest itself.  Without the privilege against civil arrests, the Court reasoned, “witnesses would be [wary] of coming within our jurisdiction.” [4] The Court went on to recognize that the privilege extended not only within the walls of the courthouse, but also “in attendance upon court, and during a reasonable time in coming and going.” [5]

Fourteen years later, Oregon joined the vast majority of states recognizing the common law privilege against civil arrests. Wemme v. Hurlburt affirmed that in Oregon “[p]arties and witnesses are exempt from arrest while going to, in attendance on, and returning from court.  This exemption is not prescribed by statute, but is a part of the common law and is a power inherent in courts for the purpose of preventing delay, hindrance, or interference with the orderly administration of justice in the courts.” [6]

Oregonians Request Prompt Action from the Chief Justice

Now before Chief Justice Martha Walters of the Oregon Supreme Court is a similar petition to keep the state courthouse accessible to all Oregonians, immigrant and non-immigrant alike.  Adelante Mujeres, Causa Oregon, Immigration Counseling Service, Metropolitan Public Defender, Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, Unite Oregon, and Victim Rights Law Center, represented by Innovation Law Lab and Nadia Dahab of Stoll Berne, are joined by the ACLU of Oregon and Youth, Rights & Justice in urging the Court to take action to protect the foundational rights of immigrants and, more broadly, every individual utilizing the courthouse.

Drawing from the very same principles raised by attorneys centuries before them, Petitioners and their allies request an order amending the Uniform Trial Court Rules (UTCR) to expressly prohibit civil immigration arrests in and around state courthouses. The petition was filed on December 4, 2018 and is currently pending before the Chief Justice.

The petition responds to growing alarm over the sharp incline of civil immigration arrests in courthouses in Oregon and around the country. The remedy requested reflects similar efforts undertaken by advocates in California, New York, and Massachusetts and by courts in New Mexico and Washington state to counter to a growing national crisis. [7] These efforts include a lawsuit filed by the District Attorneys in Suffolk County and Middlesex County, Massachusetts to enjoin federal immigration officials from engaging in courthouse intrusions.

In support of their motion, Petitioners submitted extensive evidence of the disruption caused by civil immigration arrests in courthouses in the state of Oregon. For example:

  • A minor and victim of sexual assault refused to report the crime for fear it would put her family in jeopardy.
  • An injured worker did not seek workers’ compensation benefits they were entitled to.
  • A defendant was prevented from introducing exculpatory evidence because witnesses who could prove his innocence were afraid and unwilling to go to court to testify.
  • A mother avoided going to court to pay a parking ticket for fear that her children would be left without a guardian should ICE arrest her.
  • A victim of wage theft was afraid to seek the full balance of his legal remedies.
  • A defendant was deprived of his day in court because he was arrested during the pendency of his case.

The impact of courthouse intrusions is geographically and demographically broad: planned or executed ICE arrests have occurred, at a minimum, at state courthouses in the Second (Lane), Third (Marion), Fourth (Multnomah), Fifth (Clackamas), Sixth (Umatilla, Morrow), Seventh (Sherman, Gilliam, Wheeler, Wasco, Hood River), Fourteenth (Josephine), Seventeenth (Lincoln), Eighteenth (Clatsop), Twentieth (Washington), and Twenty-fifth (Yamhill) Judicial Districts, and at the municipal courts in Beaverton and Molalla. Together these courthouses serve nearly 3 million Oregonians—citizen and noncitizen alike.

In a study cited by Petitioners, 83% of surveyed direct services providers reported that their clients had failed to appear in court due to ICE presence in the state courthouse. Moreover, Petitioners report that ICE arrests do not conform with traditional arrest protocols, raising the specter of violations of the Fourth Amendment, the Due Process clause, and anti-discrimination laws. The real-life examples of the harm that results from courthouse arrests echo the concerns articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court over a century ago and the unease of current and former judges from around the country today. [8]

A Uniform Trial Court Rule Reflecting an “Ancient” Doctrine

The Petitioners have asked the Chief Justice to issue the following rule:

  1. No person may become subject to civil immigration arrest without a judicial warrant or judicial order while the person is inside a courthouse of this state and the person is present in connection with any judicial proceeding or other business with the court.
  2. No person may become subject to civil immigration arrest without a judicial warrant or judicial order while the person is going to or coming from a courthouse of this state, or while the person is within the environs of a courthouse of this state, if the person is traveling for the purpose of any judicial proceeding or other business with the court.
  3. Oregon courts may issue writs of protection in individual cases when appropriate in order to effectuate the common law.

The proposed rule echoes the common law authority already available to litigants and witnesses under Wemme and prior U.S. Supreme Court authority. Petitioners seek affirmation of this ancient doctrine and its positive application across the state. If Chief Justice Walters issues the rule, it would be effective immediately.

The power of the Oregon courts to govern the fair and equal administration of justice through the issuance of uniform rules is recognized in statute and case law, notably in Smith v. Washington Cty. [9] In Smith, the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the ability of the court to engage in weapons searches and other means of securing the safety the courthouse.  The court reasoned that, “if courts are to serve as open forums for the resolution of legal conflicts, the participants and the public must feel safe to enter and remain inside.” [10] Similarly here, Petitioners seek the Court’s aid in ensuring the safe participation of all Oregonians in the legal system. They hope that this rule will prevent the racial profiling and harassment of people of color, such as what happened in the case of Mr. Andrade Tafolla. They also hope that a courthouse rule will provide real, meaningful assurance to all Oregonians that courthouses, like schools, hospitals and churches are special places that are safe for all, no matter your place of birth or the color of your skin.

In the meantime, parties and witnesses may use the Wemme and Stewart authority to seek individual writs of protection, now and into the future. However, as Petitioners contend, a patchwork, case-by-case approach gives little consistency across trial courts throughout the state, and may create challenges for litigants and witnesses unfamiliar with complex motions practice. Moreover, the writ offers little protection to a first-time seeker of a judicial remedy where there is no pending matter in which to file.

The Petition submitted to Chief Justice Walters can be found here. A subsequent, follow up letter to the Chief Justice can be found here.

If you, your family, your clients, or your constituents have been affected by ICE intrusions in Oregon courthouses, we would like to hear from you and offer additional resources. Comments and questions may be directed to Erin M. Pettigrew, Innovation Law Lab at erin@innovationlawlab.org.

Press inquiries may be directed to Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, 971-801-6047, victoria@innovationlawlab.org.


[1] Stewart v. Ramsay, 242 US 128, 129, 37 S Ct 44 (1916).

[2] Id.; Brief of Defendant-Appellant, Stewart v. Ramsay, 242 US 128, 129, 37 S Ct 44 (1916).

[3] Stewart, 242 at 129 (1916) (quoting Halsey v. Stewart, 4 NJL 366 (1817) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

[4] Id. at 130 (the word used in the original opinion by the Court was “chary,” a nearly obsolete synonym for “wary” in contemporary English usage).

[5] Id. at 129.

[6] Wemme v. Hurlburt, 133 Or 460, 460, 289 P 372 (1930) (citing Mullen v. Sanborn, 29 A 522 (Md Ct App 1894)). A similar privilege against arrests of subpoenaed witnesses is codified in state statute: ORS 44.090. For a summary of similar cases across the U.S., see Christopher N. Lasch, A Common-Law Privilege to Protect State and Local Courts During the Crimmigration Crisis, 127 Yale L J Forum 410, 431–32 (2017).

[7] Immigrant Defense Project, The Courthouse Trap: How ICE Operations Impacted New York’s Courts in 2018 (January 2019);  Ctr. Soc. Justice Temple Univ. Beasley Sch. of L., Obstructing Justice: The Chilling Effect of ICE’s Arrests of Immigrants at Pennsylvania’s Courthouses (Jan. 30, 2019); American Civil Liberties Union, Freezing Out Justice: How Immigration Arrests at Courthouses Are Undermining the Justice System (2018); see also National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, Promoting Access to Justice for Immigrant and Limited English Proficient Crime Victims in an Age of Increased Immigration Enforcement: Initial Report from a 2017 National Survey [hereinafter “NIWAP Report”] (May 3, 2018); Tahirih Justice Center, Key Findings: 2017 Advocate and Legal Service Survey Regarding Immigrant Survivors.

California: Application For a Proposed Rule of Court Prohibiting Civil Arrests At California Courthouses, No. 00545059 (Judicial Council of California, August 01, 2018); AB 668, 2019-2020 Reg. Sess. (CA 2019).

New York: S 00425, 2018-2019 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (NY 2019)

Massachusetts: Matter of C. Doe & Others, No. SJ-2019-119, (Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County Sep. 18, 2018).

King County Superior Court (WA): Court Policy: No Courtroom Arrests Based on Immigration Status, approved by the King County Superior Court Judges on April 22, 2008.

Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court (NM): Courthouse Access Policy, approved on Sep. 25, 2018.

[8] See, e.g., Letter from Thomas A. Balmer, Chief Justice of the State of Oregon, to Jeff Sessions, Attorney General, and John F. Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security (April 6, 2017); Letter to Acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director (December 12, 2018).

[9] Smith v. Washington Cty., 180 Or App 505, 521 (2002) (construing the phrase “administrative authority and supervision” in ORS 1.002(1)(i)).

[10] Id. at 522.

Posted on May 3, 2019

Innovation Law Lab v. McAleenan heard at the Ninth Circuit

Statement on Innovation Law Lab v. McAleenan | April 24, 2019

Innovation Law Lab is the lead plaintiff in a case that seeks to overturn the dangerous "Remain in Mexico" policy, which forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases wind their way through immigration court.Earlier this month, a federal court sided with Innovation Law Lab in finding the policy in question to be unlawful. That decision was appealed by the federal government, and the case was heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on April 24, 2019.The courtroom was packed, largely with staff and supporters of the six immigrants' rights advocacy groups that brought this suit. PJ Podesta, advocacy coordinator at the Innovation Law Lab, was present and shared remarks following the hearing.We are now awaiting the court's decision.

Posted by Innovation Law Lab on Wednesday, April 24, 2019

April 24, 2019 – Innovation Law Lab is the lead plaintiff in a case that seeks to overturn the dangerous “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases wind their way through immigration court.

Earlier this month, a federal court sided with Innovation Law Lab in finding the policy in question to be unlawful. That decision was appealed by the federal government, and the case was heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on April 24, 2019.

The courtroom was packed, largely with staff and supporters of the six immigrants’ rights advocacy groups that brought this suit. PJ Podesta, advocacy coordinator at the Innovation Law Lab, was present and shared remarks following the hearing.

We are now awaiting the court’s decision.

Plaintiffs in the suit include Innovation Law Lab, Central American Resource Center of Northern California, Centro Legal de la Raza, Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco School of Law, Al Otro Lado, Tahirih Justice Center, and 11 asylum seekers affected by the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Legal counsel is provided by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS).

For media inquiries about the suit, contact:

Inga Sarda-Sorensen, ACLU, 212-284-7347, isarda-sorensen@aclu.org

Jen Fuson, SPLC, 202-834-6209, jen.fuson@splcenter.org

Brianna Krong, CGRS, 415-581-8835, krongbrianna@uchastings.edu

For inquiries about Innovation Law Lab, contact:

Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, 971-801-6047, victoria@innovationlawlab.org

Nationwide Preliminary Injunction Granted in Innovation Law Lab v. Nielsen

April 8, 2019. Today, federal district judge Richard Seeborg granted our request for a nationwide preliminary injunction in Innovation Law Lab v. Nielsen, a case challenging implementation of the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols.”  This new policy forcibly returned certain asylum seekers to Mexico where their lives are in danger.  Under Judge Seeborg’s order, which goes into effect on April 12, 2019 at 5 PM PST, the Trump administration is enjoined from continuing to implement or expand the Migrant Protection Protocols, and also must allow the eleven named plaintiffs to return to the United States to continue their asylum cases.

“We are grateful that the court has ended the forcible return policy because it was illegal, inhumane, and, most importantly, put people’s lives in  danger” said Stephen W Manning, the Director at Innovation Law Lab. The decision also finds that the Migrant Protection Protocols do not satisfy the United States’ obligations to avoid returning asylum seekers to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of a protected ground.

Program Director Ian Philabaum has been working directly with asylum seekers subject to the program since January 2019.  “Over one thousand people have been returned to Mexico under the program since its ill-fated beginning,” he commented. “We remain committed to seeking justice for every person who has been endangered by their unlawful return, and continuing our fight against the broad damage the Trump administration is inflicting on asylum seekers and the rule of the law in the US.”

Plaintiffs in the suit include Innovation Law Lab, Central American Resource Center of Northern California, Centro Legal de la Raza, Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco School of Law, Al Otro Lado, Tahirih Justice Center, and 11 asylum seekers affected by the policy in question. Legal counsel is provided by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS).

For media inquiries about the suit, contact:

Inga Sarda-Sorensen, ACLU, 212-284-7347, isarda-sorensen@aclu.org

Jen Fuson, SPLC, 202-834-6209, jen.fuson@splcenter.org

Brianna Krong, CGRS, 415-581-8835, krongbrianna@uchastings.edu

For inquiries about Innovation Law Lab, contact:

Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, 971-801-6047, victoria@innovationlawlab.org

Innovation Law Lab statement following “Remain in Mexico” court hearing

Full text of remarks:

Hello everyone, I’m P.J. Podesta. I’m an Advocacy Coordinator for Innovation Law Lab based in Oakland, California.

Today I am in San Francisco, where a very important case, with the potential to impact thousands of asylum seekers, was just heard in federal court. The case is now being adjudicated and we hope to hear a decision soon.

The case is called Innovation Law Lab v. Nielsen. Innovation Law Lab is the lead plaintiff, joined by several other organizations and 11 asylum seekers. We brought this lawsuit to overturn the Trump Administration’s unprecedented policy of forcing asylum seekers to return to Mexico as their cases move through immigration court.

The policy we are challenging is called the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” sometimes referred to as MPP for short. The name is cruel and misleading – it is actually very dangerous to migrants. MPP is the latest attempt by the Trump Administration to deter asylum seekers from exercising their right to seek refuge in a safe country.

Why is the policy dangerous? It is well documented that migrants face danger and exploitation at the border. By forcing asylum seekers back to the border, the federal government is knowingly placing them in harm’s way. MPP is in direct violation of the humanitarian protections to which immigrants are guaranteed under not only U.S, but international, law as well.

Here’s a little background on the history of MPP. It was implemented in late January. Since then, asylum seekers have been sent back from the U.S. to Mexico on an almost daily basis. In mid-February, it was reported that not only were adults being affected by this policy, but so were children.

As soon as Innovation Law Lab and fellow legal advocates learned about this new policy, attorneys and staff went to the border to begin identifying and interviewing people affected by it. The testimonies we collected formed the basis of the case that will be heard today in court. The lawsuit was filed on February 14, 2019.

Earlier this week, the first wave of asylum seekers affected by this policy had their first court hearings. They were required to show up at Tijuana-San Diego border, where they were sent through security and were then taken into government custody to be shuttled to immigration court.

I want to tell you about one of the asylum seekers I met in Tijuana who had been sent back as a result of this policy. I met him just as he had been forcibly returned. I will never forget the mixture of shock and fear on his face.

After enduring brutal violence, he fled his home country and traveled 2,000 miles through Mexico to reach the U.S. border. In Tijuana, he was forced to wait for Customs & Border Patrol – or CBP – to allow him to ask for asylum. While he waited in a temporary shelter, he witnessed a murder, then witnessed local police do nothing to stop the assailant. Soon after, he came across body parts discarded in a nearby trash can. Surrounded by such violence, he anxiously looked forward to the day when he would be admitted to the U.S. to seek asylum.

When he was finally allowed by U.S. officials to cross the border, he was taken to what is often called a hielera, or an “icebox.” The hielera is a holding cell kept at near-freezing temperatures. Every asylum seeker, regardless of their gender, age, or health conditions passes through these hieleras when they enter the U.S.

Immigration officers rigorously questioned him, but did not once ask if he was afraid to return to Mexico. He told me afterwards that if he had been given the opportunity, he would have absolutely told them that he was afraid to return. Then – without knowing what was happening – he suddenly found himself handcuffed and returned by van to Tijuana.

I will never forget what he told me: “I am just as afraid of being in Mexico as I was in my home country.”

His story is harrowing, but unfortunately, it is not unique. Many of the migrants we met in Tijuana, including the 11 asylum seekers that join us in today’s case as plaintiffs, shared similar stories.

MPP is cut from the same cloth as the so-called “zero tolerance” policy. It is designed to cause chaos and confusion, to keep asylum seekers out no matter the cost. Regardless of the facts on the ground, the Trump Administration is now planning to expand this policy to other ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, making this ill-conceived and dangerous experiment more likely the norm.

Today, we stand in solidarity with migrants fleeing violence and seeking asylum. We know that millions of Americans stand in solidarity, too.

I want to take a moment and speak directly to those who stand in solidarity with us today: I know you are outraged at the attacks on migrants perpetrated by Trump Administration. I know you oppose the practices that aim to block the entry of asylum seekers into our country. I know you are horrified by the mass detention of immigrants across our country. And I know you are eager to welcome asylum seekers into your homes and communities. I know that you, like us, imagine a country where humanity wins out over fear.

Today’s lawsuit is an important step in the right direction. It isn’t the first time we’ve challenged the Trump Administration and it probably won’t be the last time. But with your support, Innovation Law Lab will continue to fight against policies rooted in xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and racism.

Thank you for being part of this fight for human rights.  


Plaintiffs in the suit include Innovation Law Lab, Central American Resource Center of Northern California, Centro Legal de la Raza, Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco School of Law, Al Otro Lado, Tahirih Justice Center, and 11 asylum seekers affected by the policy in question. Legal counsel is provided by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS).

For media inquiries about the suit, contact:

Inga Sarda-Sorensen, ACLU, 212-284-7347, isarda-sorensen@aclu.org

Jen Fuson, SPLC, 202-834-6209, jen.fuson@splcenter.org

Brianna Krong, CGRS, 415-581-8835, krongbrianna@uchastings.edu

For inquiries about Innovation Law Lab, contact:

Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, 971-801-6047, victoria@innovationlawlab.org

Innovation Law Lab and other groups challenge the Trump Administration in court

Photo Caption: Attorneys and asylum seekers at a port of entry.

March 22, 2019 – Today, a federal court will decide if our country’s humanitarian laws can put an end to the Trump Administration’s latest attack on asylum seekers at the border. We are challenging the unlawful and dangerous “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forcibly returns asylum seekers to Mexico while their cases are adjudicated in immigration court.

Our team has been at the border identifying and interviewing individuals affected by the policy. The people we spoke with expressed bewilderment and dread over the prospect of remaining in Tijuana, where migrants routinely face abuse and violence.

In the words of asylum seekers that have been sent back to Mexico:

“I am just as afraid of being in Mexico as I was in my home country.”

“I am alone and I also fear for my safety when I leave the safe house because the border zone is very dangerous, particularly for women and members of the LGBTQ community like me.”

“I had already said many times that I was afraid to go back to Mexico, and nobody seemed to care.”

“Not only do I feel unsafe here as an asylum seeker, I am afraid that narcotraffickers will find me and kill me… During my entire time on the U.S. side of the border, no one ever asked me if I was afraid of being returned to Mexico.”

“Apart from my fear of being in Mexico, I am also worried about how I will fight my asylum case. I don’t know how I can find a U.S. immigration lawyer while I’m in Tijuana.”

“At one point, I had to interrupt the [officer] to explain that I didn’t feel safe in Mexico. He told me that it was too bad… He told me I’d have to figure out how to survive in Tijuana.”

“Because I am a migrant here with only temporary immigration status, I feel that I am in danger and would not be protected by the Mexican government if I had a problem. I feel very visible because I have a Honduran accent… I also have visible scars and injuries on my head and face from when the Mara 18 tried to kill me in Honduras. These scars make it obvious that I am an asylum seeker.”

We will be in court today because asylum is a right. Because due process is a cornerstone of our Constitution. And because we strive to create a country where humanity rises above fear.

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Asylum seekers returned to Mexico fear for their safety, lives

March 19, 2019 – This Friday, Innovation Law Lab v. Nielsen will be heard in federal court. The case seeks to overturn the Trump Administration’s policy of returning asylum seekers to Mexico to await the outcomes of their immigration cases. Since the policy’s implementation in late January, asylum seekers—including children—have been sent back to Mexico almost daily.

Innovation Law Lab attorneys and staff, in partnership with Al Otro Lado and other legal advocacy organizations, have been working at the border to identify and interview asylum seekers who were returned to Mexico. Many of those returned have expressed bewilderment and dread over the prospect of remaining in Tijuana, where migrants routinely face abuse and violence.

Testimony from nearly a dozen asylum seekers formed the basis of the lawsuit filed in federal court on February 14, 2019. Three of those stories are shared below.

Howard Doe

On the journey from Honduras to the U.S. border, Howard Doe recounted narrowly escaping escaping Los Zetas, a drug cartel in Mexico, that kidnapped him and other migrants. “The armed men would intimidate us with their guns and tell us they were going to kill us and burn our bodies so that no could could find our bodies.”

When Howard presented himself at a port of entry to request asylum, he thought he would finally be safe from the reach of Los Zetas. “I told the asylum officer all of this,” he said. “I wanted to refuse to go back to Mexico, but I was afraid that they might punish me for speaking up. I had already said many times that I was afraid to go back to Mexico, and nobody seemed to care.”

Despite sharing his fears with a U.S. immigration officer, Howard was still selected for return to Mexico to await the outcome of his asylum case. Los Zetas is known for torturing and killing those who evade them, and Howard fears that as long as he remains in Mexico, he will be a target.

Bianca Doe

Bianca Doe knows her only option for survival is to petition for asylum in the U.S. “In Honduras, if you are a lesbian, you may as well be dead.”

When Bianca was a teenager, she was raped and became pregnant. “He told me that he did this because I am a lesbian and love women,” she recalled.

Shortly after her son was born, the child’s father sued her for custody. “When we went to court, the judge said that, because of my sexual orientation, I am not a fit mother and would not raise my son correctly… When my family found out that I was a lesbian, they supported my son’s father in the custody battle.”

In spite of the challenges faced by lesbians in Honduras, Bianca found companionship and love with another woman. Once her girlfriend’s father found out about their relationship, he became enraged and beat his daughter. He then drove his daughter and Bianca to a location near the Honduras-Guatemala border. “He parked the car and threatened me that unless I left Honduras, he would kill me and that he would also kill my partner, his daughter,” Bianca said. “I had no choice but to leave. I got out of the car and walked across the border right then and there.”

Prior to presenting herself at a port of entry, Bianca connected with Cristian Sanchez, an attorney at RAICES, who provided her with a letter requesting she not be returned to Mexico, as well as an index of documents on country conditions in Honduras. However, she was never given the opportunity to present these documents or even bring them with her to her interview with an immigration officer.  

Bianca is now living in a shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers, where she—like so many others—continues to hope she will one day be admitted into the U.S. “I am alone and I also fear for my safety when I leave the safe house because the border zone is very dangerous, particularly for women and members of the LGBTQ community like me.”

John Doe

An indigenous man from Guatemala, John sought asylum in the U.S. after being threatened and severely beaten by the Ronderos de San Juan, a death squad that controls his hometown. His journey was a difficult one, marked by a close encounter with a drug cartel that boarded a train he was traveling on. “Not only do I feel unsafe here as an asylum seeker, I am afraid that narcotraffickers will find me and kill me… During my entire time on the U.S. side of the border, no one ever asked me if I was afraid of being returned to Mexico.”

John also worries he will not be able to adequately prepare for his asylum hearing. Had he been permitted to remain in the U.S., he could have been released to stay with his family, including U.S.-citizen siblings who live in California. Instead, he remains far from their support with his legal case and more.

John was among the first asylum seekers to be returned to Mexico as a result of the Trump Administration’s so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols.” He fears for his life and safety as he moves between shelters in Tijuana, Mexico. That fear has only intensified since he was briefly admitted into the United States, with the promise of refuge and reunification with his family, only to be sent back across the border.

To read the suit filed on February 14, 2019, click here.

To read declarations filed by plaintiffs, including the individuals mentioned in this post, click here.

For media inquiries about the suit, contact:

Inga Sarda-Sorensen, ACLU, 212-284-7347, isarda-sorensen@aclu.org

Jen Fuson, SPLC, 202-834-6209, jen.fuson@splcenter.org

Brianna Krong, CGRS, 415-581-8835, krongbrianna@uchastings.edu

For inquiries about Innovation Law Lab, contact:

Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, 971-801-6047, victoria@innovationlawlab.org

Innovation Law Lab and other groups demand an immediate end to returning asylum seekers to Mexico

February 21, 2019 – Late last night, Innovation Law Lab and other groups asked a federal court to immediately halt the return of asylum-seeking migrants to Mexico. A hearing is expected soon.

“Every day this policy is allowed to continue, more asylum seekers are placed in harm’s way,” said Stephen Manning, Innovation Law Lab executive director. “Turning back individuals who are lawfully applying for asylum is, simply put, unconscionable.”

The filing is the latest in the lawsuit, Innovation Law Lab v. Nielsen, which challenges the legality of the Trump Administration’s forced return practiced, the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols,” which forcibly returns asylum seekers to Mexico where they are at great risk of harm.

The filing also comes on the heels of the expansion of the policy to include not only adult asylum seekers, but families with children. On February 13, a family was returned with a one-year-old child.

“People we spoke with in Tijuana reported feeling too fearful to venture outside of the shelters and homes where they were staying,” said Jordan Cunnings, Innovation Law Lab staff attorney. “Not only do they fear violence at the hands of cartel members or others who may target vulnerable migrants, but they worry the Mexican government may deport them while they wait.”

Read the filing here.

Innovation Law Lab is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS). Plaintiffs in the suit include Innovation Law Lab, Central American Resource Center of Northern California, Centro Legal de la Raza, Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco School of Law, Al Otro Lado, Tahirih Justice Center, and 11 asylum seekers affected by the policy in question.

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