Los Angeles: A federal appeals court Friday blocked a key asylum policy of Donald Trump's administration which has forced many applicants to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed, delivering a blow to the US president's signature crackdown on migration at the southern border.
The policy, known as "Remain in Mexico," has been used to send tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Central America back to Mexico, but was placed on hold by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
The court ruled that the policy "is invalid in its entirety" under US law concerning migrant rights and UN refugee protocols, and should be blocked "in its entirety."
The White House blasted the ruling, warning it could "flood the nation's immigration system" and "present unchecked coronavirus entry risk."
The San Francisco court had originally allowed the policy to go-ahead last year, pending the appeal, overruling a district judge who had ruled against the measure.
The district judge had heard evidence that migrants returned to Mexico under the policy faced discrimination, physical violence, sexual assault, corruption and lack of food and shelter.
Over 60,000 people have been returned to Mexico under the program since it was introduced in January 2019, according to the White House.
The American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that challenged the policy in court, welcomed the ruling Friday.
"The court forcefully rejected the Trump administration's assertion that it could strand asylum seekers in Mexico and subject them to grave danger," said attorney Judy Rabinovitz in a statement.
"It's time for the administration to follow the law and stop putting asylum seekers in harm's way."
"The policy is facially and flatly illegal," tweeted Harvard Law School constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe.
But a Department of Justice spokesman said the Trump administration had "acted faithfully" and slammed the ruling which "highlights the consequences and impropriety of nationwide injunctions."
The court's decision "not only ignores the Constitutional authority of Congress and the administration for a policy in effect for over a year, but also extends relief beyond the parties before the court."
The White House said it was "considering all available legal options to seek further review of this decision," and called the asylum policy "hugely successful."
The number of detained migrants soared in recent years as hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from Central America, poured into the United States, with many seeking asylum.
A crackdown including the "Remain in Mexico" policy has seen border apprehensions plunge in recent months.
The figure stood at fewer than 37,000 last month, from more than 58,000 a year earlier.
But Refugee International warned Friday that the asylum policy "means the difference between life and death" for migrants "cruelly pushed into harm and deprivation in Mexico."
In a separate ruling Friday, the same appeals court also struck down the Trump policy of blocking anyone entering illegally without going through an official port of entry from applying for asylum.
"Together, the two decisions represent a significant setback for the Trump administration's efforts to restrict asylum applications," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell Law School professor.
"This issue is surely headed to the Supreme Court," he added.