By Lizbeth Diaz and Jose Gallego Espina
TIJUANA/SAN DIEGO, March 19 (Reuters) - Asylum seekers sent to wait in to Mexico under a controversial new Trump administration policy crossed into the United States on Tuesday for their first hearings in U.S. immigration court, harboring hopes a judge would allow them to stay.
The U.S. program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), turns people seeking protection in the United States around to await pending U.S. court dates in Mexican border towns. Some 240 people - including families - have been returned to Mexico since late January, according to U.S. officials.
Court officials 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 a group of about a half-dozen Central Americans crossed through the San Ysidro port of entry early Tuesday morning. Only a couple were represented by attorneys.
Ariel, 19, who said he left Honduras because of gang threats and asked to use only his middle name because of fears of reprisals, was among the first group of asylum seekers sent back to Mexico on Jan. 30 and given a notice to appear in U.S. court in San Diego.
He took an Uber from the migrant shelter where he has been living to the port of entry with another returnee, after speaking by phone with his family back in Honduras.
"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," he said.
Ariel's attorney, Robyn Barnard from the nonprofit group Human Rights First, said she would argue against him being sent back to Mexico.
"We have evidence about the dangers that asylum seekers and refugees face in Mexico," Barnard said. "So we plan to present that to the judge and to the government today."
Before crossing the border, Barnard's clients bowed their heads for a prayer.
U.S. officials have said they are working with the Mexican government to ensure migrants are safe waiting Mexico. But some Mexican officials have warned the country's border cities would struggle to look after asylum seekers for long periods.
Some returnees, like Ariel, say they have not been given legal work permits in Mexico.
"No one is telling them how to do that," said Mariel Villarreal, an immigration lawyer with the San Francisco-based Pangea Legal Services, who has a Guatemalan client with a hearing set for Tuesday in San Diego. "They are just being sent back to homelessness in Tijuana basically."
The American Civil Liberties Union 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 their U.S. court dates and to find legal help.
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.
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.
(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Jose Gallego Espina in San Diego; writing and additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)
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