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By Mica Rosenberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A group of asylum seekers fleeing gang and drug violence in Honduras and Mexico were improperly turned away at the U.S.-Mexico border by border patrol agents, a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government on Wednesday said.
The lawsuit said some U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have referred to the tough immigration policies of President Donald Trump when turning asylum seekers back. But it also said human rights groups have documented "hundreds" of cases dating back to at least the summer of 2016, before Trump's election win in November.
Filed by a non-profit legal services group called "Al Otro Lado" along with six unidentified people in U.S. District Court in central California, the class action lawsuit said border agents have used "misrepresentations, threats and intimidation," to tell asylum seekers they cannot enter the country at various border crossings in California, Arizona and Texas.
The accounts of the plaintiffs detailed in the lawsuit could not be independently verified.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Under U.S. immigration law, if someone arriving at a U.S. port of entry expresses fear of returning to their country, border agents should refer them to an interview with a designated asylum officer.
The lawsuit detailed the case of a woman from Mexico whose brother-in-law was a high-ranking police official killed and dismembered by a drug cartel in Mexico, which then threatened her family. When she arrived with her children at the San Ysidro, California, port of entry and said she was afraid to go back, a border officer coerced her into signing a form in English that she did not understand withdrawing her application for admission to the United States, the lawsuit said.
Apprehensions of immigrants on the southwest border have dropped since the beginning of the Trump administration in January, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics. Apprehensions are down more than 67 percent to more than 21,000 in June of 2017 from more than 66,000 in October.
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley in Washington; editing by Grant McCool)