DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. As the Trump administration moves to take a harder stance on immigration, a federal judge in California has blocked the administration's policy requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico as they wait for their court hearings in the United States. Officials say hundreds of asylum-seekers have been sent back to Mexican cities, from Tijuana to Juarez, under the president's so-called Migrant Protection Protocols. Reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler was in immigration court in San Diego when the judge's ruling came down.
MAX RIVLIN-NADLER, BYLINE: At 9 a.m. Monday, 19 Central American asylum-seekers, including families and small children, made their way from migrant shelters in Tijuana to the San Ysidro Port of Entry and then to a special courtroom in downtown San Diego. It was their first hearing in their immigration cases. None of them had lawyers. Many said they had tried to find one but couldn't; none of the pro bono lawyers on a list given to them by Customs and Border Protection would travel to Mexico to meet with them. Many said they were fearful of returning to Mexico, where they had been living since at least February, when they first entered the U.S. to apply for asylum. I'd rather be detained in the United States than have to return, said one father through tears, sitting next to his 10-year-old son.
Midway through the hearing, however, the judge was interrupted. A lawyer announced that the entire MPP program had been halted. An injunction had just come down from Judge Richard Seeborg in a federal court in San Francisco. Ian Philabaum is the program coordinator at the Innovation Law Lab, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit which resulted in the injunction. The suit claimed that the government was not correctly applying asylum law.
IAN PHILABAUM: The Trump administration was trying to manipulate the statute in order to further its efforts to impede asylum-seekers from being able to seek their protection that they are afforded under international and domestic law here in the United States.
RIVLIN-NADLER: Since first going into effect in January, the MPP policy has expanded to El Paso, Texas, and to Calexico, east of San Diego. In Mexicali, across the border from Calexico, one asylum-seeker waiting for her immigration hearing was Sairi Lemus (ph), a Guatemalan mother of three. She explained the process to KJZZ's Michel Marizco.
SAIRI LEMUS: (Speaking Spanish).
RIVLIN-NADLER: "And then, well, they interviewed us, and everything but no," she said. "They sent us to wait here. We have an appointment with the judge May 8 in San Ysidro." Lawyers are still trying to make sense of the ruling - who can stay in the U.S., who can return to the U.S. There were 11 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, and all are currently in Tijuana.
LISA KNOX: I'm not sure how broadly this is going to apply and who's going to be allowed to return.
RIVLIN-NADLER: Lisa Knox is an attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza. She represented plaintiffs in the case.
KNOX: So certainly, it could be that everyone's going to be allowed to return to the U.S. who's been through the Migrant Protection Protocols program. But the order is very clear that the 11 individuals named in the lawsuit have to be allowed to enter the U.S.
RIVLIN-NADLER: The ruling will go into effect at 5 p.m. on April 12. The federal government can appeal the injunction. For the 19 asylum-seekers in immigration court in San Diego when the ruling came down, the judge said they would be sent back to Tijuana for now, pending another round of interviews to determine whether their fear of returning is credible. They might be among the very last Central American immigrants returned to Mexico. For NPR News, I'm Max Rivlin-Nadler in San Diego.