First asylum seekers returned from Mexico for U.S. court hearings

Honduran migrant Ariel, 19, who is waiting for his court hearing for asylum seekers returned to Mexico to wait out their legal proceedings under a new policy change by the U.S. government, is pictured after an interview with Reuters in Tijuana, Mexico March 18, 2019. Picture taken March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Lizbeth Diaz and Mica Rosenberg

TIJUANA/NEW YORK (Reuters) – A group of asylum seekers sent back to Mexico was set to cross the border on Tuesday for their first hearings in U.S. immigration court in an early test of a controversial new policy from the Trump administration.

The U.S. program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), turns people seeking protection in the United States around to wait out their U.S. court proceedings in Mexican border towns. Some 240 people – including families – have been returned since late January, according to U.S. officials.

Court officials in San Diego referred questions about the number of hearings being held on Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to a request for comment. But attorneys representing a handful of clients were preparing to appear in court.

Migrants like 19-year-old Ariel, who said he left Honduras because of gang death threats against himself and his family, were preparing to line up at the San Ysidro port of entry first thing Tuesday morning.

Ariel, who asked to use only his middle name because of fears of reprisals in his home country, was among the first group of asylum-seeking migrants sent back to Mexico on Jan. 30 and given a notice to appear in U.S. court in San Diego.

“God willing everything will move ahead and I will be able to prove that if I am sent back to Honduras, I’ll be killed,” Ariel said.

While awaiting his U.S. hearing, Ariel said he was unable to get a legal work permit in Mexico but found a job as a restaurant busboy in Tijuana, which does not pay him enough to move out of a shelter.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other advocacy groups are suing in federal court to halt the MPP program, which is part of a series of measures the administration of President Donald Trump has taken to try to curb the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the United States.

The Trump administration says most asylum claims, especially for Central Americans, are ultimately rejected, but because of crushing immigration court backlogs people are often released pending resolution of their cases and live in the United States for years. The government has said the new program is aimed at ending “the exploitation of our generous immigration laws.”

Critics of the program say it violates U.S. law and international norms since migrants are sent back to often dangerous towns in Mexico in precarious living situations where it is difficult to get notice about changes to U.S. court dates and to find legal help.

Immigration advocates are closely watching how the proceedings will be carried out this week, especially after scheduling glitches created confusion around three hearings last week, according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which runs U.S. immigration courts under the Department of Justice, said only that it uses its regular court scheduling system for the MPP hearings and did not respond to a question about the reported scheduling problems.

Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said there are real concerns about the difficulties of carrying out this major shift in U.S. immigration policy.

“The government did not have its shoes tied when they introduced this program,” he said.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)

U.S. court to reconsider shielding airport screeners from abuse claims

FILE PHOTO: A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official wears a TSA badge at Terminal 4 of JFK airport in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Penney/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court decided to revisit its recent decision that made it difficult for travelers to sue U.S. airport screeners over claims of abuse at security checkpoints.

In a brief order on Wednesday, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said a 13-judge panel will reconsider the 2-1 decision at a Feb. 20 hearing, in a rare review by the full court known as “en banc.”

The court had held on July 11 that U.S. Transportation Security Administration screeners were administrative employees of the federal government, and did not qualify as “investigative or law enforcement officers” who could be liable for civil claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

While the decision did not address criminal liability, Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro said in a dissent at the time that it would prevent many passengers from obtaining “any meaningful remedy” for assaults, wrongful detentions and made-up criminal charges, something he said Congress did not intend.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which represented the screeners, declined to comment.

The case had been brought by Nadine Pellegrino, a business consultant from Boca Raton, Florida, following a July 2006 screening at Philadelphia International Airport.

Pellegrino objected to the invasiveness of the screening, and was eventually jailed for about 18 hours and criminally charged with assault, making terroristic threats and other crimes, which she denied. She was acquitted at a trial.

Her case drew support from such groups as the Cato Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It’s vitally important for government officers to be held accountable for intentional misconduct,” ACLU lawyer Hugh Handeyside said in an interview. “Without that possibility, we might see more abuses.”

Ambro said the July 11 decision could provide immunity even in extreme cases, citing a 2015 incident where screeners allegedly manipulated a Denver International Airport checkpoint so a male screener could grope “attractive” male passengers.

Pellegrino, now 69, said an in interview the support she has received has been “astonishing,” adding: “We feel elated today that we’ll have an opportunity to have this reconsidered.”

The 3rd Circuit hears appeals from Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but other courts can cite its decisions as precedent.

The case is Pellegrino et al v U.S. Transportation Security Administration et al, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-3047.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry)

U.S. court expected to decide whether to halt North Dakota pipeline work

Protesters hold signs outside the U.S. District Court in Washington, where a hearing was being held to decide whether to halt construction of an oil pipeline in parts of North Dakota where a Native American tribe says it has ancient burial and prayer sites,

By Julia Harte

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge was expected to decide on Tuesday whether to temporarily halt construction of an oil pipeline in parts of North Dakota where a Native American tribe says it has ancient burial and prayer sites.

After violent clashes over the weekend between protesters and security officers near the construction site, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and a neighboring Native American tribe asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Sunday for a temporary restraining order against Dakota Access, the company building the pipeline.

Dakota Access filed its opposition to the tribes’ request early on Tuesday, accusing the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of provoking the violence and breaking the law in trying to stop the pipeline.

A group of firms led by Energy Transfer Partners is building the 1,100-mile (1,770-km) pipeline. The $3.7-billion project would be the first to bring crude oil from Bakken shale, a vast oil formation in North Dakota, directly to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Dakota Access, the limited liability company carrying out the actual construction, had planned for the pipeline to be operational by the fourth quarter of this year, but construction has been dogged since April by protests in North Dakota.

The weekend protests were triggered, the tribes said, when the pipeline company used bulldozers on Saturday to destroy sacred tribal sites whose locations had been identified in court documents filed on Friday.

Heather Mendoza of Arlington, Virginia, holds up a sign as she protests outside the U.S. District Court in Washington, where a hearing was being held to decide whether to halt construction of an oil pipeline in parts of North Dakota where a Native American tribe says it has ancient burial and prayer sites

Heather Mendoza of Arlington, Virginia, holds up a sign as she protests outside the U.S. District Court in Washington, where a hearing was being held to decide whether to halt construction of an oil pipeline in parts of North Dakota where a Native American tribe says it has ancient burial and prayer sites, September 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Dakota Access said in its reply to the requested restraining order that the bulldozers were operating under the company’s pre-planned construction schedule and did not destroy any important historical sites.

The tribes want Dakota Access restrained from working on areas of “significant cultural and historic value,” pending a judge’s decision on an injunction they requested last month. It asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which approved the pipeline project in July, to withdraw permits for the project.

The federal judge overseeing the case has said in court hearings that he would decide whether or not to grant the injunction by Sept. 9, according to local media reports.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not oppose the tribes’ motion on Sunday for the temporary restraining order. The agency said in a court document filed on Sunday that “the public interest would be served by preserving peace” until the judge issues a ruling on the injunction.

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Frances Kerry)