WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's administration on Monday announced one of its most restrictive rules yet for an asylum system that Trump has called "ridiculous" and "insane."
In a move that would stop nearly all Central American families who are fleeing persecution and poverty from entering the United States, Trump administration officials said they would deny asylum to migrants who failed to apply for protections in the first country they passed through on their way north.
According to the plan published in the Federal Register and set to take effect today, Hondurans and Salvadorans would have to apply for -- and be denied -- asylum in Guatemala or Mexico before they were eligible to apply for asylum in the United States. Guatemalans would have to apply for and be denied asylum in Mexico.
The rule also applies to children who have cross the border alone.
The rule would effectively limit asylum protections to Mexicans and those who cross the United States' southwestern border by sea. But migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala make up the vast majority of asylum seekers who have tried to enter the United States in record numbers this year. The Border Patrol has arrested 510,412 migrant family members from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala at the southwestern border thus far in fiscal 2019, compared with more than 3,200 Mexican family members.
Many Africans, Cubans and Haitians who travel through Mexico to the southwestern border would also be barred from obtaining the protections.
There are some exceptions, including for victims of human trafficking and asylum seekers who were denied protection in another country. If the country the migrant passed through did not sign one of the major international treaties governing how refugees are managed (though most Western countries signed them) a migrant could still apply for U.S. asylum.
The treaties that countries must have signed according to the new rule are the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol or the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. But, for example, while Australia, France and Brazil have signed those treaties, so have Afghanistan and Libya, places the U.S. does not consider safe.
The administration made the announcement despite the fact that Guatemala and Mexico have refused to go along with the plan -- meaning the countries have made no assurances that they will grant asylum to the migrants who are headed to the United States.
But the Trump administration, which has been negotiating fruitlessly for months with Guatemala and Mexico on the plan, gave up and made the announcement without any deal after talks with Guatemala broke down and the country's president, Jimmy Morales, backed out of a meeting Monday at the White House. Talks with Mexico remain in flux.
ACLU SUIT VOWED
The new rule is expected to be immediately challenged. Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, said in a statement that the rule "could not be more inconsistent with our domestic laws or international laws" and said his organization would sue swiftly.
"This is yet another move to turn refugees with well-founded fears of persecution back to places where their lives are in danger -- in fact the rule would deny asylum to refugees who do not apply for asylum in countries where they are in peril," said Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First.
Gelernt said the rule was unlawful and the group planned to sue.
"The rule, if upheld, would effectively eliminate asylum for those at the southern border," he said. "But it is patently unlawful."
Trump administration officials countered that the surge of migrants at the border was a growing catastrophe and that something had to be done.
"This rule is a lawful exercise of authority provided by Congress to restrict eligibility for asylum," Attorney General William Barr said. "The United States is a generous country but is being completely overwhelmed by the burdens associated with apprehending and processing hundreds of thousands of aliens along the southern border."
He also said the rule is aimed at "economic migrants" and "those who seek to exploit our asylum system to obtain entry to the United States."
Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Monday that his country "does not agree with any measure that limits access to asylum." Mexico's asylum system is also currently overwhelmed.
Trump administration officials say the changes are meant to close the gap between the initial asylum screening that most people pass and the final decision on asylum that most people do not win.
The new rule also will apply to the initial asylum screening, known as a "credible fear" interview, at which migrants must prove they have credible fears of returning to their home country. It applies to migrants who are arriving to the U.S., not those who are already in the country.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said additional funding given by Congress for aid at the U.S.-Mexico border isn't enough.
"Until Congress can act, this interim rule will help reduce a major 'pull' factor driving irregular migration to the United States."
Along with the administration's recent effort to send asylum seekers back over the border, Trump has tried to deny asylum to anyone crossing the border illegally and restrict who can claim asylum, and the attorney general recently tried to keep thousands of asylum seekers detained while their cases play out.
Nearly all of those efforts have been blocked by courts.
The asylum system, long a part of U.S. law, was meant to give immigrants a legal opportunity to live in the United States only when they could demonstrate that they would face persecution, torture or death if they returned to their home countries.
BACKLOG OF CASES
But from the moment he took office, Trump has called the country's asylum laws little more than permissive loopholes. "The asylum rules and laws are so bad that our Border Patrol people, who are so incredible, aren't allowed to do their jobs," the president said recently.
Trump argues that migrants are gaming the system by falsely claiming asylum and then skipping out on their court hearings. In fact, the government's own statistics show that most asylum seekers show up for their court hearings, especially if they are represented by a lawyer.
However, the waiting period to be heard in court can be years because of a backlog of more than 900,000 immigration cases. By the time immigrants show up for their hearings, they have often put down roots with children, jobs and mortgages.
Few asylum claims are granted -- the Trump administration says only 20% are, and immigration advocates say some 40% are -- but both sides agree that immigrants who are ultimately denied asylum often defy deportation orders and stay in the United States illegally.
Previous administrations did not make it a priority to find and deport them and instead focused on immigrants in the country illegally who had committed serious crimes.
But Trump and his immigration advisers -- led by Stephen Miller, chief architect of his border policies -- say such a loose policy lures people to the United States. They are determined to break it by any means necessary.
"Folks are incentivized by the gaps in our legal framework to come to the United States right now," McAleenan said recently in an interview. "That's a group we don't think should be coming, don't think should be crossing unlawfully, don't think should be in the hands of smugglers and enriching criminal organizations.
"That is a flow we think should stop," he said.
Although Monday's announcement was Trump's most wide-ranging effort to date, the administration has worked to keep migrants from seeking asylum in dozens of actions by multiple agencies.
So far, the administration's efforts have largely failed to stem the flow of migrants. In May, 144,000 surged across the border from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
While arrests declined in June by 28%, officials estimate that by the end of the year, nearly 1 million migrants may have crossed the southwestern border, most of them hoping to stay permanently by claiming asylum.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael D. Shear and Zolan Kanno-Youngs of The New York Times; and by Colleen Long, Cedar Attanasio and Michael Balsamo of The Associated Press.
A Section on 07/16/2019
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