The Trump administration on Thursday rolled out a fast-track regulation that will restrict the ability of certain migrants to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border — a move that’s almost certain to trigger legal challenges and humanitarian backlash.
The administration issued an interim final rule that will bar certain migrants caught crossing the border between ports of entry. The regulation will be paired with a presidential proclamation that outlines the migrants subject to the asylum bar, administration officials said on a call with reporters. The officials would not detail who could be subject to the ban, but said more information likely would be revealed Friday.
The regulation seeks to “channel inadmissible aliens to ports of entry, where they would be processed in a controlled, orderly, and lawful manner,” according to a notice posted online Thursday afternoon.
In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has fixated on a group of Central American migrants trekking through Mexico en route to the United States. During a speech last week, Trump called the caravan an “invasion” and said asylum seekers would be turned away.
“This isn’t an innocent group of people,” he said of the group, which includes many women and children. “It’s a large number of people that are tough.”
Republican voters in Tuesday’s midterm elections cited immigration as one of the most important issues facing the country, according to exit polls. The announcement Thursday suggests Trump won’t ease up on his immigration crackdown, which dominated his first two years in office.
A senior administration official on Thursday said asylum seekers who cross between ports of entry are “choosing to break our laws as their first act upon entering the country“ and “depriving legitimate asylum seekers of a chance to have their cases heard.”
The official called the current influx of asylum seekers a “massive … almost historically unparalleled abuse of our immigration system.”
Federal immigration law allows immigrants in the U.S. to apply for asylum irrespective of whether they’ve arrived legally or without a visa. While the Trump administration has portrayed illegal immigration as a crisis, the number of border arrests in fiscal year 2018 remained below levels during the past decade, and far below levels in the 1990s and aughts.
The fast-track regulation issued Thursday hinges on the same federal statute as Trump’s travel ban policy, the third version of which the Supreme Court upheld in June. The statute, section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, states that the president can suspend entry of foreigners deemed “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”
The scope of the asylum restrictions will depend on which migrants are judged “detrimental” in the forthcoming presidential proclamation.
The regulation will be applied prospectively, officials said Thursday.
Migrants intercepted between ports of entry will still be able to petition for other forms of relief, according to the regulation text.
The migrants could apply for “withholding of removal,” which offers refuge to people who face a threat to their life or freedom. In addition, they could apply for protection under the Convention Against Torture, which is available to people with a removal order who are deemed more likely than not to be tortured in their home country.
Still, immigration advocates criticized harshly the move to restrict asylum access — and a legal battle appears likely once the policy moves forward.
“Asylum laws are clear on this,” said Eleanor Acer, director of Human Rights First’s refugee protection program. “This is an illegal attempt to do an end run around laws Congress passed.“