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Trump signs immigration order on asylum

November 9, 2018

The Trump administration has signed an order that would effectively ban migrants who illegally cross the US-Mexico border from qualifying for asylum. The move comes as thousands of migrants are making their way north.

Migrants traveling from Central America en route to the United States
Image: Reuters/H. Romero

The United States will no longer allow certain people who enter the country illegally to qualify for asylum, according to a new proclamation signed by President Donald Trump on Friday. 

The order, which comes into effect on Saturday, suspends the entry of migrants through the US southern border between ports of entry for 90 days.

The measures released by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are meant to funnel asylum seekers through official border crossings along the nearly 2,000-mile-long (3,200-kilometer-long) US-Mexico border.

Under current rules, a migrant is allowed to make a claim up to a year after arriving in the US, whether if they crossed the border illegally or not. But the new regulations would effectively ban migrants who illegally cross the border from qualifying for asylum.

"Those who enter the country between ports are knowingly and voluntarily breaking the law," the Justice Department said Thursday.

Trump has invoked the same extraordinary presidential national security powers he used to justify a version of the travel ban that was upheld by the Supreme Court in June, senior administration officials told The Associated Press.

The move comes as three caravans of Central American migrants, estimated to be around 7,000 strong, make their way north through Mexico toward the United States. The order will not apply to unaccompanied migrant children. 

'Illegal' to deny asylum

Much like the travel ban, the new changes are likely to be met with legal challenges. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday that the agency's legal experts are reviewing the Trump administration's new policy.

"The policy is being reviewed by legal colleagues. I understand it is a lengthy document. It needs to be carefully reviewed," UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters, declining to comment further.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said on Friday it had filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to prevent the Trump administration from implementing the asylum policy.

The ACLU said a day earlier that the right to request asylum must be granted to everyone entering the country, whether illegally or through a border crossing, as stated in the asylum section of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

"US 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," said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. 

Other critics of the new regulations have pointed out that points of entry along the border are overcrowded and already have long lines and waits. Immigration officials are often forced to tell some migrants to come back to make their claims.

More difficult to qualify

The new regulations would largely affect migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who are fleeing violence and poverty at home. 

"The vast majority of aliens who enter illegally today come from the Northern Triangle countries," the legislation text said. "Channeling those aliens to ports of entry would encourage these aliens to first avail themselves of offers of asylum from Mexico."

Asylum claims in the US have spiked in recent years — there were more than 330,000 claims in the US in 2017 — and there are more than 800,000 asylum cases pending in immigration court. Generally, only about 20 percent of cases get approved.

The Trump administration has already made it more difficult for migrants to qualify for asylum in the US. In June, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was pushed out by Trump earlier this week, issued a decision that narrowed the spectrum of circumstances under which immigrants can use violence in their home country as basis for US asylum.

On Thursday, the Justice Department, now headed by acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, justified the new regulations by saying the US asylum system "is overwhelmed with too many meritless asylum claims" which prevent the system from being able to handle legitimate ones.

A better life in Mexico?

Hard line on immigration

Trump made immigration a key issue leading up to Tuesday's midterm elections, where his Republican Party lost control of the House of Representatives but maintained its majority in the Senate. He repeatedly drew attention to the caravan through provocative tweets, brash campaign speeches and a controversial campaign ad.

Read more: What do the midterm election results mean for Trump?

Trump has also sent US troops to the border in anticipation of the migrant arrivals. As of Thursday, there are more than 5,600 troops deployed at the border and the military is expected to have more than 7,000 troops for the mission by Monday.

The soldiers are mostly doctors and engineers providing logistical support. US law prohibits active-duty service members from being involved in law enforcement activities on US soil unless specifically authorized by Congress. The president is authorized under some specific statues to deploy troops for riot control or relief efforts after natural disasters.

dv/cmk (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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