New Trump administration rule makes asylum harder for Central Americans

After many days in Border Patrol custody and at a shelter, migrants prepare to depart Tucson, often heading to family across the country. They later must appear at an asylum hearing. (Photo by Julian Hernandez/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The Trump administration wants to set new barriers for migrants seeking asylum at the southern border.

The new rule, published Monday in the Federal Register, states that asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border will no longer be able to apply for asylum in the U.S. if they pass through another country on their way here. Migrants traveling through other countries now must apply for asylum before they reach the U.S.

The rule will most affect Central American migrants, as Mexico acts as a land barrier between all of Central America and the southern border.

“While the recent supplemental funding was absolutely vital to helping confront the crisis, the truth is that it will not be enough without targeted changes to the legal framework of our immigration system,” Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a joint statement released by DHS and the Department of Justice.

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McAleenan said the rule would “reduce the overwhelming burdens” brought on by illegal migration into the U.S. until Congress is able to pass new immigration legislation.

The ACLU tweeted its disapproval of the announcement, calling the rule “patently unlawful,” and promised to sue the Trump administration in response.

Marcela Taracena of the ACLU of Arizona said the rule was announced not out of necessity, but for political gain.

“This is just another tactic that this administration is using in order to invoke fear in those folks who are fleeing fear; they’re fleeing death, they’re fleeing poverty (and) economic hardship,” Taracena said. “These are just folks who need our help and we are turning our back on them, and that’s not who we are as a nation and that’s not what we should do in Arizona.”

In the joint statement, Attorney General William Barr supported the rule and called it “a lawful exercise of authority.”

“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,” said Barr, who approved the rule last week with McAleenan.

The rule offers three exceptions.

The first is in cases where migrants can prove they sought protection in any of the countries they traveled through and were denied. The second requires migrants to prove they qualify under U.S. law as a victim of human trafficking. The final exception is if a migrant travels to the U.S. only through countries that don’t adhere to certain refugee and torture protocols established in the mid- and late-20th century.

Although all seven Central American countries – Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama – adhere to all three of the conventions or protocols listed, as of 2015, the U.S. only adheres to two: the 1967 Protocol and the Convention Against Torture.

Phoenix attorney Jonathan Solorzano said proving a case for asylum is easier said than done, particularly when the rules keep changing.

Solorzano said such barriers as requiring migrants to provide documentation that they adequately sought help in their own country or other countries, along with proof that their lives are threatened, are unrealistic for those actually facing life-or-death situations.

“When somebody flees their house in the middle of the night, especially if you’re poor and you’re fleeing for your life, you’re not going to be able to document all of these steps,” he said. “When you get to the United States and they ask you for (this) evidence, you probably won’t have (it).”

Although Justice and Homeland Security officials say the new rule will decrease the flow of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border, Solorzano said it will only exacerbate the problem.

“They’re cutting down every single avenue of relief for these people,” he said. “The more people you deny entry or relief to is the more people that are going to be in detainment centers waiting for a hundred days to get out.”

The official Interim Final Rule will be published Tuesday by the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice in the Federal Register, according to the joint statement.