In a ruling Thursday afternoon, San Diego Judge Cynthia Bashant found U.S. border officials were unlawfully turning away asylum seekers from ports of entry.
“What what was going on is that the department was turning back these asylum seekers and saying, ‘Look we're at capacity, you're going to have to go back to Mexico and come back at another time,'" San Diego legal analyst Dan Eaton said.
The ruling came as a result of a lawsuit filed in 2016 by legal groups representing Al Otro Lado, an organization that supports migrants in Tijuana.
“We have been fighting for this for over four years,” said Nicole Ramos, border rights project manager for Al Otro Lado. “And what we've been fighting over is not so unusual or revolutionary."
Under U.S. law, when someone comes to the border seeking asylum, CBP officers are supposed to refer them to asylum officers for interviews. Those interviews are the first step in determining whether they have credible evidence to be granted asylum.
During the Obama Administration, when the number of Haitians arriving at the San Diego border increased dramatically, officers began turning migrants away and claiming the department was at capacity. The policy was then formalized under the Trump Administration.
“The court said it wasn't unsympathetic to the argument that the immigration officials' resources are stressed,” Eaton said. “But the court said it wasn't free to disregard the plain meaning of congressionally enacted statutes, which trigger the right to inspection and referral for asylum upon an individual's arrival at a port of entry.”
Judge Bashant has not decided what she will recommend as a remedy in the case. She has asked both sides to submit additional briefings on the topic by Oct. 1.
While plaintiffs in the case are satisfied with the win, they're not in any place to celebrate.
“There's some general excitement,” said Ramos. “But people are nervous."
They say they're holding back celebrations until a fair remedy to the problem is found.
NBC 7 reached out to the U.S. Department of Defense for comment, but has not heard back.