Trump administration to suspend asylum for people who cross border illegally


President Donald Trump announces that he wants to limit claims for illegal border crossers. The president described the people in migrant caravans as not legitimate asylum seekers. (Nov. 1) AP

The Trump administration announced a plan on Thursday to dramatically cut back migrants’ ability to request asylum in the U.S., a direct challenge to federal law and international conventions that the president says is necessary to stop a migrant caravan that is slowly making its way to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Migrants are currently allowed to request asylum whether they present themselves at ports of entry or sidestep those ports and illegally enter the country. The new rules being proposed by the administration would bar those who enter illegally from making an asylum claim and place them into expedited deportation proceedings instead, according to a posting by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security on the Federal Register late Thursday.

President Donald Trump hinted at such a change in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s midterm elections as part of a broader strategy where he focused almost exclusively on immigration in an effort to rile up the GOP base. During a press conference four days before the midterm elections, he said there was “rampant abuse” of the nation’s asylum system, with asylum claims increasing from 5,000 in 2008 to 97,000 in 2018, mostly fueled by Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries.

“Our asylum system is overwhelmed with too many meritless asylum claims from aliens who place a tremendous burden on our resources, preventing us from being able to expeditiously grant asylum to those who truly deserve it,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said in a joint statement. “Today, we are using the authority granted to us by Congress to bar aliens who violate (the new rules.”

Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney who led the lawsuit that forced the Trump administration to reunite more than 2,500 children separated from their parents this summer, said the proposed asylum changes are equally dubious.

“The administration’s plan to categorically deny asylum to those who enter between ports of entry is patently unlawful and inconsistent with our nation’s commitment to providing a safe haven to those in danger,” Gelernt said Thursday. “There will be lawsuits.”

Several groups have already filed lawsuits in California and the District of Columbia challenging the administration’s actions to limit asylum. Thursday’s announcement will only add to a new round of litigation, which could eventually be decided by a Supreme Court that now features two Trump appointees.

Asylum is a form of protection granted to people who fear persecution in their home countries based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or their political opinion. From 2000 to 2016, the U.S. granted asylum to an average of 26,651 foreigners a year, according to Department of Homeland Security data

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act states that any foreigner who arrives in the U.S. “whether or not at a designated port of arrival” may apply for asylum. And a 1951 United Nations treaty signed by the U.S. states that “refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry” because their extreme situations sometimes “require refugees to breach immigration rules.”

To override those rules, the administration is using a similar rationale that it used for its controversial travel ban targeting majority-Muslim countries. U.S. law allows a president to sign a proclamation suspending entry to people who are deemed “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” Trump is expected to sign a presidential proclamation outlining the asylum restrictions, which would kick-start the new rules. 

As the number of migrants requesting asylum along the southern border has increased in recent years, thousands have been forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border, sometimes sleeping on bridges and streets, to plead their case. The Mexican government, working with non-governmental organizations and volunteer groups, have even created a system where applicants are signed up and allowed to enter the U.S. ports of entry in order.

But those long waits, following even longer journeys to reach the U.S. border, often drive immigrants to enter the country illegally and request asylum that way. When the last caravan reached the U.S. in April, 401 presented themselves at ports of entry, as the administration has urged them to do, but 122 quit waiting and entered the country illegally to request asylum, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.


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Thursday’s announcement follows several other steps taken by the administration to halt the caravan, which Trump has described as an “invasion” of the country.

The Pentagon is mobilizing more than 7,000 active-duty military troops, who have already started laying miles of concertina wire along portions of the border. And U.S. Customs and Border Protection has re-positioned its agents from throughout the country to line the southern border to prevent illegal entries.

During a recent trip to the border, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said he viewed the oncoming caravan as a “law enforcement situation” and that his officers could not speed up the process to interview asylum-seekers.

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