SAN DIEGO -- A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on behalf of a Guatemalan family alleges they were denied asylum despite facing the continuous threat of harm in their home country and Mexico.
The ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial counties alleges in the suit that the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols -- or "Remain in Mexico" -- program has turned away thousands of people fleeing Central America through Mexico, even if they faced substantial threats.
Many migrants are allowed to express their fears of being returned home during "non-refoulement interviews," but are denied access to legal counsel during the proceedings, despite the complex legal issues at hand, according to the ACLU.
The plaintiffs -- two adults and five children -- fled Guatemala in April after they were targeted for extortion, the family's 17-year-old daughter was raped and threatened with death, and her 9-year-old brother stricken with leukemia, according to the lawsuit.
The family was later assaulted and held at gunpoint by men in government uniforms while traveling through Mexico, according to the lawsuit, which says they were forced to disrobe and the 17-year-old was choked by one of the men.
The family, despite being threatened not to reveal what happened, reported the incident to Mexican law enforcement, but received no help, according to the ACLU, which says the plaintiffs "live in fear every day that someone will find their family and hurt them while they are forced to live in Mexico."
In August, the family was taken into custody by U.S. immigration officials in Chula Vista, where they requested asylum. They were returned to Mexico two days later and were never asked about their fears of being returned to Mexico, the ACLU alleges.
They have since gone through non-refoulment interviews, but have been detained during those proceedings and denied legal counsel, until recently receiving pro bono representation by Jewish Family Service of San Diego, according to the lawsuit.
"Individuals and families who are force to remain in Mexico under MPP have virtually no access to legal services in the United States," said Michael Hopkins, CEO of Jewish Family Service of San Diego.
"Very few are represented by counsel and they have limited to no access to other supportive services, including critical medical and behavioral health support, which would be available if they were going through the asylum process in the U.S.," he said. "Furthermore, for the cases that are represented by counsel, access to clients while in CBP custody is non-existent. This lawsuit is a necessary step to provide asylum seekers with due process."
Nearly 50,000 migrants have been returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program, according to the ACLU, which stated: "The government's repeated attacks on the asylum process undermine our values as a just and compassionate country, but locking people up and forbidding them from consulting with their lawyers strikes at the very heart of our constitution."