The rules invoke the same authority Donald Trump used to justify his travel ban of several Muslim-majority nations. (Reuters: Ueslei Marcelino)
Donald Trump’s administration has unveiled new rules to sharply limit migrant asylum claims by barring individuals who cross the US southern border illegally from seeking asylum.
- Current US asylum rules don’t bar people who enter the country without authorisation
- This move would largely affect migrants fleeing violence and poverty in Central America
- Immigration advocates are calling the rules an unlawful way to cut asylum claims overall
Immigrant advocates have denounced the move, saying it violated existing US law that allows people fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries to apply for asylum regardless of whether they enter illegally or not.
The regulations released, in conjunction with an order expected to be signed by President Donald Trump, would effectively ban migrants who cross the US border with Mexico illegally from qualifying for asylum.
Officials said once the plan came into full effect, migrants entering at the US southern border would only be eligible for asylum if they reported at official ports of entry.
One senior administration official spoke to reporters in a news briefing on condition of anonymity.
“What we are attempting to do is trying to funnel … asylum claims through the ports of entry where we are better resourced, have better capabilities and better manpower and staffing to actually handle those claims in an expeditious and efficient manner,” they said.
New rules likely to be challenged in court
People from the migrant caravan gather on sleeping mats inside a dormitory tent in Mexico City. (ABC News: Ximena Natero)
The Trump administration has already made it more difficult for migrants to qualify for asylum in the United States.
Administration officials have said existing US asylum rules encouraged illegal immigration and bogged down legitimate claims.
The busy ports of entry already had long lines and waits, forcing immigration officials to tell some migrants to come back to make their claims.
Claims have spiked in recent years, and there is a backlog of more than 800,000 cases pending in immigration court.
Generally, only about 20 per cent of applicants are approved.
In June, then-attorney general Jeff Sessions issued an appellate decision that sharply narrowed the circumstances under which immigrants could use violence at home as grounds for US asylum.
Mr Sessions, who resigned at Mr Trump’s request this week, also instructed immigration judges and asylum officers to view illegal border-crossing as a “serious adverse factor” in deciding a case and to consider whether applicants could have escaped danger by relocating within their own countries.
Mr Trump made his hardline policies toward immigration a key issue ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, sending thousands of US troops to help secure the southern border and repeatedly drawing attention to a caravan of Central American migrants trekking through Mexico toward the United States.
The President also suggested he would revoke the right to citizenship for babies born to non-US citizens on American soil and erect massive “tent cities” to detain migrants.
Those issues were not addressed by the regulations.
Currently, US asylum rules do not bar people who enter the country without authorisation, and the Immigration and Nationality Act, which governs the US immigration system, specifically allows people who arrive in the United States, whether or not they do so at a designated port of entry, to apply for asylum.
The administration’s plan, which invokes the same authority Mr Trump used to justify his travel ban on citizens of several Muslim-majority nations, is likely to be quickly challenged in court.
‘Eligible regardless of where they cross’
Migrants hold their hands out for food donations in Tapachula city centre. (Reuters: Adrees Latif)
The move would largely affect migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — who cross the US border with Mexico to flee violence and poverty in their home countries.
“The vast majority of aliens who enter illegally today come from the Northern Triangle countries,” the regulation’s text reads.
“Channelling those aliens to ports of entry would encourage these aliens to first avail themselves of offers of asylum from Mexico.”
The move was spurred in part by the caravan, but will apply to anyone caught crossing illegally, officials said.
Immigrant advocates denounced the administration’s move as unlawful, and said the plan to funnel migrants to ports of entry was just a way to cut asylum claims overall.
“Congress has directly spoken to this question as to whether individuals can be rendered ineligible for asylum if they cross between ports of entry and has specifically said people are eligible regardless of where they cross,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Ports of entry … are overcrowded,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of Texas-based Refugees and Immigrant Centre for Education and Legal Services (RAICES).
“Asylum-seekers have been left to camp out for days and weeks on bridges at the border, when they should be guaranteed a right to enter the country for a fair hearing.”