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Innovation Law Lab v. Mayorkas

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Case Status: 

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, No. 3:19-cv-00807-RS U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, No. 19-15716 U.S. Supreme Court, No. 19-1212

What is the government doing and why are we challenging it? 

In January 2019 the administration launched the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) and has forcibly returned over 68,000 asylum seekers to await their U.S. immigration court dates in perilous conditions in Mexico. This unprecedented action denies asylum seekers full and fair access to the U.S. asylum system and returns them to a country where they face violence, dire human rights conditions, and possible refoulement to their countries of origin. A screening process instituted by U.S. authorities that is supposed to identify people who would be at risk of persecution or torture if returned to Mexico and allow them to stay in the United States instead is completely inadequate. People subject to MPP are easily targeted in dangerous Mexican border towns by criminal gangs intent on robbery, kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder. Local officials and civil society organizations are not able to provide protection, food, shelter, medical care, education, or employment to the asylum seekers as they wait for months while their immigration court cases move slowly through the system, nor can U.S. legal service providers effectively help them prepare their cases.

Whose life is at stake? 

One of our plaintiffs is Dennis Doe (a pseudonym to protect his identity), a young man from Honduras who fled death threats from the MS-13 gang because he refused to join them. He went first to another part of Honduras, but the gang sent him a note saying they knew where he was and his life was in danger. The same gang killed a close friend of Dennis’s. Dennis fled to the United States to ask for asylum but has been forced to stay in Mexico while his case goes on. He is terrified there because MS-13 gang members, identifiable by their tattoos, move freely about Tijuana. Dennis is afraid that the people who were trying to kill him in Honduras will find him in Mexico. When he was interviewed by a U.S. asylum officer regarding his case, he was not asked if it was possible or safe for him to remain in Mexico. Dennis continues to wait in Mexico in fear and desperation.

What’s the status of this case? 

At every step, federal courts considering the merits of the case have found MPP to be unlawful. In April 2019 a federal district court in California granted a preliminary injunction, which would have temporarily halted the policy. The Ninth Circuit initially stayed the injunction – allowing MPP to remain in effect – but restored it in February 2020, ruling unequivocally that MPP violates both U.S. and international law. The government then appealed to the Supreme Court, which put the injunction on hold as it considered the case, leaving the policy in place until the Biden administration terminated it. Following the termination, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court, which vacated the injunction as moot.

In October 2023 the parties reached a settlement agreement, bringing the case to a close. Under the terms of the settlement, named individual plaintiffs in the case, people seeking asylum who were forcibly returned to Mexico and denied meaningful access to the U.S. asylum system, will finally have the opportunity to pursue their legal claims safely in the United States.

The settlement agreement in Innovation Law Lab does not preclude the organizational plaintiffs from bringing further litigation to challenge the continued adverse impacts of the policy or any future attempts by the government to resurrect it.

Who’s involved? 

The Center for Gender & Refugee Studies is counsel along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center. We represent eleven individual asylum seekers as well as six non-profit legal services and advocacy organizations: Innovation Law Lab, Central American Resource Center of Northern California, Centro Legal de la Raza, the University of San Francisco School of Law Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, Al Otro Lado, and the Tahirih Justice Center. Several organizations and individuals have filed amicus briefs in this case including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; the asylum officers union; former government officials; Human Rights First; and Amnesty International USA, Washington Office on Latin America, Latin America Working Group, and IMUMI.

How can you help? 

Take the #WelcomeWithDignity pledge and join our movement to defend the right to seek asylum. You can support CGRS’s vital work on cases like this one by making a donation.

Need more information? 

Contact Brianna Krong, Communications and Advocacy Manager, at krongbrianna@uclawsf.edu.

Resources for Advocates 

CGRS has produced several resources to support attorneys representing clients impacted by MPP and other policies affecting asylum seekers at the border. Click here to request materials relevant to your client’s case.