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Trump administration seeks to restrict asylum claims

The newly installed acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker, along with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced Thursday that they plan to bar people who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border from applying for asylum.

DHS and the Justice Department filed the new procedure in the Federal Register on Thursday, and must seek comment before implementing the interim rule. 

"The interim rule, if applied to a proclamation suspending the entry of aliens who cross the southern border unlawfully, would bar such aliens from eligibility for asylum and thereby channel inadmissible aliens to ports of entry, where they would be processed in a controlled, orderly, and lawful manner," they wrote. 

If the rule is implemented, both DHS and DOJ would amended their regulations, and DHS would create a "screening process" specifically to bar people from seeking asylum if they entered the U.S. between the ports. 

Whitaker, formerly the chief of staff for the Attorney General, replaced his boss Jeff Sessions less than 24 hours after President Donald Trump forced Sessions to resign Wednesday. 

The move comes as immigration officials and the White House sounded the alarm that a "caravan" of people traveling on foot more than 900 miles from the border would attempt to seek asylum in the United States. 

In recent days, the Defense Department announced that it would send 5,600 soldiers from more than 60 different units to the border, including around 1,500 in Arizona alone as an operation called at first "Operation Faithful Patriot," a moniker that was abandoned nearly as quickly as it was announced. 

Officials within U.S. Customs and Border Protection said they were "well-prepared" for the caravan and downplayed the group of around 7,000 people, including around 1,000 children, who walked into southern Mexico from Guatemala earlier this month, according a memo leaked to TucsonSentinel.com

This includes a range of military police, logistics companies, helicopter units, and several public relations units, including two "combat camera" squadrons that have been generating hundreds of images of U.S. troops. 

On Tuesday, as voters were heading to the polls, members of an engineering company began stringing up concertina or "razor" wire along the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in downtown Nogales, reported the Nogales International. 

In a joint statement, Whitaker and Nielsen said that the White House has "the broad authority to suspend or restrict the entry of aliens into the United States if he determines it to be in the national interest to do so. Today's rule applies this important principle to aliens who violate such a suspension or restriction regarding the southern border imposed by the President by invoking an express authority provided by Congress to restrict eligibility for asylum." 

The two officials also claimed that the asylum system is "overwhelmed with too many meritless asylum claims from aliens who place a tremendous burden on our resources, preventing us from being able to expeditiously grant asylum to those who truly deserve it." 

In recent months, more than 2,000 people, mostly families with children, have crossed into Arizona either near Lukeville, or just south of Yuma, most of them asylum seekers from Guatemala. 

Citing the "incredibly high volume" of families who presented themselves to Border Patrol agents, officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement suddenly released hundreds of immigrant families in October, forgoing coordination and travel plans, and forcing advocates to scramble for help. 

At the same time, advocates are reporting that officials in El Paso are dropping families off on the street, an echo of a similar policy in 2014 when officials in Arizona simply dropped off immigrants at the Greyhound bus terminal in Tucson. 

In a statement, Nielsen and Whittaker defended the new rule. 

"Consistent with our immigration laws, the President has the broad authority to suspend or restrict the entry of aliens into the United States if he determines it to be in the national interest to do so," they wrote. 

"Today's rule applies this important principle to aliens who violate such a suspension or restriction regarding the southern border imposed by the President by invoking an express authority provided by Congress to restrict eligibility for asylum." 

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 "Our asylum system is overwhelmed with too many meritless asylum claims from aliens who place a tremendous burden on our resources, preventing us from being able to expeditiously grant asylum to those who truly deserve it," they wrote. "Today, we are using the authority granted to us by Congress to bar aliens who violate a Presidential suspension of entry or other restriction from asylum eligibility."

The American Civil Liberties Union blasted the move. 

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

The U.S. code that guides asylum law states that any one who is "physically present" in the United States, or arrives in the United States, "whether or not at a designated port of arrival," can apply for asylum. 

For the last two years, Trump administration officials have repeatedly argued that there's a large number of "baseless and fraudulent asylum applications." In October, Sessions told an audience of immigration judges that they should seek to raise the burden of prove for "credible fear" claims, and over the summer, Sessions eliminated asylum claims for people fearing domestic violence or gang violence. 

Moreover, an analysis of court records by the Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse showed in January 2018, the number successful credible fear claims began to plummet, and by June, only around 15 percent of asylum seekers were able to convince the court to grant them a "credible fear" claim. TRAC's analysis also showed that there is a sixty-fold disparity in successful credible fear decisions from court to court. 

In 2018, around 20 percent of people were granted asylum, and around 41 percent of claims were denied, according the Justice Department statistics. 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Border Patrol agent on a rocky outcrop in the desert east of Yuma, Arizona.

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