ACLU Sues Trump Administration For Forcing Asylum Seekers To Play 'Deadly Game Of Musical Chairs' With 'Safe Third Country' Policies

The Trump administration has been hit with yet another lawsuit over its immigration policies, with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) leading a lawsuit against the government over its widely-condemned "safe third country" agreement with Central American countries.

In the lawsuit, which was filed on Wednesday, the ACLU, National Immigrant Justice Center, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and Human Rights First accuse the Trump administration of putting asylum seekers' lives in danger by forcing them to return to the region they fled.

Already, the Trump administration's "safe third country" deals have seen asylum seekers reaching the U.S.-Mexico border through Guatemala sent back to that nation under the premise that Guatemala is safe enough for them to make their claims there. The U.S. has also signed similar deals with Honduras and El Salvador and is expected to eventually start sending asylum seekers to all three Northern Triangle countries.

Katrina Eiland, an attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, accused the Trump administration of effectively creating "a deadly game of musical chairs that leaves desperate refugees without a safe haven."

Eiland also argued that the "safe third country" agreements stand in violation of U.S. and international law.

"The administration is illegally trying to turn away asylum seekers and pass the buck to other countries that can't protect them," the attorney said.

Rights groups have maintained that asylum seekers should have the right to file their claims in the U.S. unless they can be sent to another country through a valid safe third country agreement.

"However, the country must first provide 'access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum' in order to qualify as safe," they said in a press release. "These countries fail to meet that standard."

At the center of the lawsuit, U.T. v. Barr, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., are the stories of asylum seekers who have been turned away at the border and sent to Guatemala under the U.S.'s safe third country agreement, regardless of whether they are from there.

Among them is the story of the lawsuit's namesake, U.T., a gay man identified only by his initials, who fled from El Salvador after allegedly being threatened by an MS-13 gang member.

Fearing he would be attacked or killed for his sexual orientation if he tried to live openly as a gay man in his home country, U.T. made the arduous journey to the U.S. border, passing through Guatemala, where he said he was subjected to homophobic harassment.

Once he arrived at the U.S. border, U.T. told rights groups, he was told he was being removed to Guatemala, where he said he fears he will face homophobic persecution.

M.H., another asylum seeker named in the lawsuit, is a Honduran mother who fled to the U.S. with her young daughter in tow.

Her common-law husband and sister-in-law had been working in the transportation business in Honduras, and, like many businesses in the country's major cities, they faced extortion from gangs and were forced to pay a regular fee to continue operating.

Eventually, M.H. told rights groups, both her common-law husband and sister-in-law were murdered.

Fearing the same thing could happen to her and her daughter, M.H. decided to flee to the U.S., "only to be sent back into danger," rights groups said.

Asylum seekers wait for an appointment date with U.S. authorities outside El Chaparral crossing port on the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on October 18, 2019. The Trump administration is facing a lawsuit for forcing asylum seekers to make their claims in Central America under its 'safe third country' agreements. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty

"The plaintiffs' cases illustrate how callous the Trump administration's attacks on the asylum system have become, and how far we have drifted from our own values as a country," Ruben Loyo, litigation attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said in a statement.

"Because of this illegal rule and the administration's perverted application of the 'safe third country' label, the U.S. is slamming the door on individuals fleeing life-threatening conditions and sending them back to a country where they have no guarantee of safety and security," Loyo said. "Instead, the plaintiffs and other asylum seekers often have no choice but to return to their home country where they are exposed to further harm and displacement."

In a statement sent to Newsweek on Thursday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Jim Burns said that as a matter of policy, the agency would not comment on pending litigation.

"However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations," Burns said.