The United States has a longstanding commitment to protect people fleeing persecution. Congress has guaranteed that noncitizens who arrive or are physically present in the United States may apply for asylum, subject to three narrow exceptions. One of those exceptions is that noncitizens may be denied the opportunity to apply for asylum in the United States and instead be removed to seek protection elsewhere pursuant to a “safe third country” agreement. That exception only applies if strict statutory requirements are met, including that the asylum seeker would have a full and fair opportunity to seek asylum in the “safe third country” and would not face persecution or torture there.
For years, our only safe third country agreement was with Canada, a safe nation with a robust asylum system. Then, in the summer of 2019, the United States signed three new “asylum cooperative agreements” (“ACAs”) with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—extremely dangerous, refugee-producing countries with asylum systems that are skeletal at best. In November 2019, the government issued written guidance implementing its ACA with Guatemala and began removing non-Guatemalan asylum seekers there.
Together with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, the ACLU of Texas, National Immigrant Justice Center, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, and Human Rights First, we sued to challenge the government’s rules using its new agreements to unlawfully slam our nation’s doors on people fleeing horrific violence and other forms of persecution by denying them the right to apply for asylum in the United States and shipping them to dangerous countries where there is virtually no chance they will find refuge.
Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are impoverished, unstable, and among the most dangerous places in the world. 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. Indeed, all three countries generate large numbers of refugees due to epidemic levels of violence and instability typically seen in war zones. In 2017 and 2018, the Northern Triangle countries were three of the top four countries of origin for individuals granted asylum in the United States. The challenged rules send vulnerable asylum seekers to countries with barely functioning asylum systems that cannot adequately protect them. The result is a deadly game of musical chairs that leaves many desperate asylum seekers without a safe haven, in violation of U.S. and international law.
Among the asylum-seekers we represent in this case (who have all been granted court permission to proceed under pseudonyms) are:
- U.T., a gay man from El Salvador who fled his country for the U.S. after being threatened by an MS-13 gang member. He fears he will be attacked or killed for his sexual orientation if he tries to live openly as a gay man in his home country. He traveled through Guatemala en route to the U.S. and was subjected to homophobic harassment in Guatemala. When he got to the U.S., border officials said he was being removed to Guatemala, where he also fears homophobic persecution.
- M.H., a Honduran mom who fled to the U.S. with her young daughter. Her common-law husband and her sister-in-law worked in the transportation business in Honduras and were forced to pay local gangs in order to work. They were both murdered. Fearing for their safety after being threatened, M.H. and her daughter fled to the U.S., only to be sent back into danger.
We also represent two immigrant-advocacy organizations, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and the Tahirih Justice Center, in challenging the regulations.