Civil rights groups seeking to block the Trump administration's policy of returning asylum seekers to Mexico had met basic requirements to bring their case, a judge said Friday, but he appeared skeptical of one of their key arguments to show the practice is illegal.
Judge Richard Seeborg did not immediately issue a ruling at the end of a hearing to help him decide whether to put the policy on hold while a lawsuit challenging it moves forward.
The policy that began in January at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego marked an unprecedented change to the U.S. asylum system. Families seeking asylum are typically released in the U.S. with notices to appear in immigration court.
The administration later expanded the policy to the Calexico port of entry, about 120 miles east of the San Ysidro crossing.
The lawsuit on behalf of 11 asylum seekers from Central America and legal advocacy groups says the administration is violating U.S. law by failing to adequately evaluate the dangers that migrants face in Mexico.
Seeborg said the plaintiffs had authority to bring the case and the court could hear it. But he questioned an argument that the policy violated a U.S. law that allows the return of immigrants to Mexico.
The administration has cited that law as authority for change in the asylum system. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups said that law does not apply to asylum seekers who cross the border illegally or arrive at a port of entry without proper documents.
They also accuse Homeland Security and immigration officials of depriving migrants of their right to apply for asylum by making it difficult or impossible to do so.
"Instead of being able to focus on preparing their cases, asylum seekers forced to return to Mexico will have to focus on trying to survive," according to the lawsuit filed in February by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies.
The Trump administration hopes that making asylum seekers wait in Mexico will discourage weak claims and help reduce an immigration court backlog of more than 800,000 cases.
The Justice Department said in court documents that the policy "responds to a crisis of aliens, many of whom may have unmeritorious asylum claims, overwhelming the executive's immigration-detention capacity, being released into the U.S. to live for many years without establishing an entitlement to relief, and often never appearing for immigration proceedings."
Border Patrol arrests, the most widely used gauge of illegal crossings, have risen sharply over the last year but are relatively low in historical terms after hitting a 46-year low in 2017.
The policy followed months of delicate talks between the U.S. and Mexico. Mexicans and children traveling alone are exempt from it.