Trump Tightens Asylum Rules for Central Americans

A group of asylum seekers crossed the border between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, on the Fourth of July. (Mark Lambie/The El Paso Times via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Setting fire to the welcome mat and burying its ashes, the Trump administration toughened its asylum policy Monday so that all immigrants who pass through another country on their way into the United States are branded ineligible.

The new rule, published this morning in the federal register and set to take effect Tuesday, applies to both adults and children traveling alone. It says any “alien who enters or attempts to enter the United States across the southern border after failing to apply for protection in a third country outside the alien’s country of citizenship, nationality, or last lawful habitual residence through which the alien transited en route to the United States is ineligible for asylum.”

Traveling on foot, tens of thousands of families fleeing violence in Central America attempt to cross the border from Mexico into the United States every month. Monday’s rule says asylum seekers must declare themselves first in the third country first, though it also describes asylum as a “discretionary immigration benefit” that can “generally” be declared by those who are “physically present or arriving in the United States.”

“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,” U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement announcing the change. “This rule will decrease forum shopping by economic migrants and those who seek to exploit our asylum system to obtain entry to the United States — while ensuring that no one is removed from the United States who is more likely than not to be tortured or persecuted on account of a protected ground.”

Noting that just the number of immigrants subject to removal after flunking a credible-feat interview has jumped from 5% to 40% in the last decade, the Department of Homeland Security says the country must take action.

Exceptions to the rule are still possible for those who fail to register for asylum ahead of time, including for victims of human trafficking. The policy says such reprioritizing will ensure those subject to human trafficking “are able to obtain relief more quickly.”

Reacting to the rule, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt told the Associated Press that the rule is “patently unlawful.”

Among those that support Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration, meanwhile, the Federation for American Immigration Reform predicted that a challenge could slow the new policy.

“At a time where the nation is facing an unprecedented border crisis and Congress refuses to act, this rule will help end asylum abuse, restore order to the asylum system, and discourage illegal immigration into the country,” Matthew Tragesser, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement.

“Activist judges have continually intervened in the ability of the administration to effectively carry out U.S. immigration policies that serve the national interest,” Tragesser added.

The number of immigrants denied asylum jumped sharply last year, according to a November 2018 study by the Syracuse University-based TRAC Immigration program which counts a number of immigration-related factors. In November 2018, the group reported that the number of accepted asylum cases has stayed between 20% and 30% since 2001, but the denials began increasing sharply in 2017.

TRAC linked the increased denials to a policy put in place by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, limiting the grounds for asylum in a way that directly impacted Central American women and children fleeing from gang and domestic violence.

“Not surprisingly, following this new hard line on immigration enforcement, the rate of asylum denials has recently climbed,” TRAC reported.

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