SAN DIEGO -- An immigration judge has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to keep a Honduran asylum-seeker in the United States while he waits for his court proceedings instead of returning him to Mexico again under a Trump administration program.
Judge Scott Simpson said after evaluating the man's mental competence in a special hearing on Friday, he found that the man would need safeguards in his case to ensure due process. He ordered one safeguard immediately put in place -- to remove the man from a program known officially as Migrant Protection Protocols and more widely as "Remain in Mexico."
"I find that he lacks a rational and factual understanding of the nature of the proceedings," Simpson said in issuing his order.
This is the first time that a judge has made such a ruling since the program's implementation in January, according to advocates who have been monitoring immigration court proceedings.
The program requires certain asylum-seekers from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to wait in Mexico while their cases progress in immigration court. The man has been waiting in Tijuana as part of the program for several months.
A Customs and Border Protection guide for officials implementing the program says that migrants with known physical or mental health issues should not be included in the program.
"It's a big deal that a judge recognized that there was a predatory nature to having put this person in the 'Migrant Persecution Protocols,'" said Ian Philabaum of Innovation Law Lab, calling the program a name used by some immigrant rights advocates to criticize it. "He wasn't going to have a chance, and now he gets a chance."
At the man's first hearing in March, Simpson quickly became concerned that the man might have a mental competency issue that would make him ineligible for the program or require other protections. He ordered DHS to evaluate the man's mental state.
Simpson asked government attorneys at each hearing after that whether the man's mental state had been evaluated and whether the government believed he should continue to be included in the program.
Each time, the government attorney responded that the man should continue in MPP.