(CN) – President Donald Trump on Friday signed a proclamation that cuts off asylum relief for migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
Trump’s proclamation, along with a new Justice Department rule, is aimed at cutting back Mexican and Central American migrants’ access to immigration hearings if they’ve skipped ports of entry, the Department said.
In justifying the new asylum restrictions, the department cited a backlog of more than 136,000 immigration court cases involving migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
“Today, the President has made a strong statement that enough is enough. Aliens with legitimate claims to asylum can still receive it—they simply have to go to one of our ports of entry,” Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said Friday.
Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project, responded to the new regulations, saying that “U.S. law specifically allows individuals to apply for asylum whether or not they are at a port of entry.”
“It is illegal to circumvent that by agency or presidential decree,” Jadwat said.
Trump has maintained that under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, he has wide discretion on how the U.S. handles foreigners’ entry into the country.
The Act states that “whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,” he can issue a proclamation suspending or restricting their ability to come into the country.
By all accounts, the new regulations stand to make the asylum process for migrants more difficult from the start.
For migrants detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the rules generally nullify the initial “credible fear” screening, wherein an immigration official is supposed to decide whether an asylum-seeker has a well-founded fear of racially, ethnically or politically motivated persecution or harm if returned to the home country. The officials are directed, under the new DOJ rule, to withhold a favorable “credible fear” finding if the person did not come through a port of entry.
If a migrant is found to have violated Trump’s proclamation, he or she can still get a “reasonable fear” finding — a more difficult standard of review. Once that burden of proof is met, the migrant may be granted a withholding of deportation, or relief under the Convention Against Torture, the Department said.
The DOJ’s immigration rule announcement Thursday evening came one day after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ resignation. Sessions for months had been lambasted by Trump for recusing himself from an investigation into foreign meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He was replaced by Acting Attorney General Whitaker Wednesday.
The Department of Justice rule text is dated the day before Sessions resigned. It still bears Sessions’ name at the bottom.
The new regulations show Trump is still pushing a hard-line stance on immigration matters. In the days leading up to the midterm elections, he floated the idea of suspending constitutionally outlined birthright citizenship. And he incensed immigrant-rights advocates by saying the migrant caravan heading north through Mexico “isn’t an innocent group of people.”
“At this very moment, large well-organized caravans of migrants are marching towards our southern border. Some people call it an invasion. …These are tough people in many cases; a lot of young men, strong men and a lot of men that maybe we don’t want in our country. …This isn’t an innocent group of people. It’s a large number of people that are tough,” Trump said, citing clashes between some migrant members and Mexican police.
Former President Obama in a stump speech for Democrats in Miami last Friday called the Trump rhetoric a cheap attempt to arouse rage in his base in advance of the election.
The proclamation is in effect for 90 days, after which point it will go under review by the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security.