Updated Friday at 5:08 p.m. ET
The Trump administration is taking steps to stem the flow of Central American migrants crossing the U.S. border from Mexico.
The administration issued a new rule Thursday designed to prohibit migrants who cross the border outside of designated entry points from seeking asylum in the United States.
The measure quickly drew a legal challenge. The ACLU and other groups say federal law allows anyone on U.S. soil to petition for asylum, even if that person crossed the border illegally. They filed suit Friday morning in a federal court in San Francisco.
"President Trump's new asylum ban is illegal," said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project in a statement. "Neither the president nor his cabinet secretaries can override the clear commands of U.S. law, but that's exactly what they're trying to do."
The administration responded to the lawsuit in a joint statement released by email by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security:
"The fact that the ACLU and its partners would go to court to specifically sue for the right for aliens to enter the country illegally is demonstrative of the open border community's disdain for our nation's laws that almost all rational Americans find appalling."
The administration wants to get around the asylum provision in U.S. immigration law by using the president's broad authority to exclude any immigrant — or class of immigrants — deemed "detrimental to the interests of the United States." That's the same authority the president used when he issued his travel ban on a variety of mostly Muslim countries. That ban was initially blocked by the courts but after several revisions was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judges may face a similar test, weighing the president's broad authority to exclude migrants against the right to apply for asylum.
"The question becomes, if these two provisions conflict, which one wins?" said Stephen Legomsky, former chief counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He suspects the right to apply for asylum would carry the day.
The new measure is designed to funnel asylum-seekers to official ports of entry, where the administration says their claims could be processed more efficiently. The move could also dramatically limit the number of people admitted to the U.S.
"The Trump administration is taking a sledgehammer to the cherished American tradition of protecting people fleeing persecution," said Ur Jaddou, director of the advocacy group DHS Watch.
The president has long been frustrated by the number of immigrants crossing the border illegally from Mexico. Although the overall numbers are well below what they were at their peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, today's border crossers are more likely to be families and children from Central America. For legal reasons, they are more difficult to expel than the single adults from Mexico who made up the bulk of border crossers a generation ago.
Many of the Central American migrants seek asylum once they arrive in the U.S., claiming fear of persecution if they return home. Administration officials say that while most asylum-seekers pass their initial screening test, many never actually file an asylum claim or they fail to appear for a scheduled asylum hearing. Actually, the majority do go to court. And less than 1 in 5 is found to actually meet the standards for asylum.
"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," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said in a joint statement.
In recent weeks, Trump has sounded dire warnings about a "caravan" of migrants from Honduras and other Central American nations who are slowly making their way through Mexico toward the border. He has ordered thousands of active-duty military troops to support border enforcement agents.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The Trump administration is taking steps to stem the flow of Central American migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Today the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security issued a new rule. It's designed to prohibit migrants who cross the border outside of designated entry points from seeking asylum once they reach the United States. The administration complains many migrants are abusing the asylum system and placing a tremendous burden on the federal government. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So the president's been issuing, you know, dire warnings for weeks now about a caravan of migrants from Central America slowly making its way through Mexico towards the U.S. Is that who this rule change is aimed at?
HORSLEY: Well, certainly the caravan became a boogeyman for the president in the final weeks of the midterm campaign. But more broadly, illegal immigration has been a target for Donald Trump ever since he launched his bid for the White House three years ago. Even though overall illegal immigration numbers are way below what they were in the late '90s and the early 2000s, President Trump is very unhappy with the spike we've seen in children and families from Central America. For a variety of legal reasons, they are much harder to expel than the single adults from Mexico who made up the bulk of illegal border crossers a generation ago. A lot of the Central Americans claim when they arrive in the U.S. that they are afraid of persecution if sent home. And even though the administration says a lot of those asylum claims turn out to be unfounded, the migrants get to stay in the U.S. in the meantime. And that's a headache for the White House.
CHANG: OK, so what exactly would this new regulation do?
HORSLEY: Basically, it would say if you cross the border illegally, you are no longer eligible to seek asylum. The goal is to funnel asylum-seekers to official ports of entry only. Now, the administration says that's where they have the manpower and other resources to process those asylum claims efficiently. It's also possible, though, that this would by design create a kind of bottleneck and simply choke off the flow of migrants in the hopes that eventually they would give up and stop trying to get to the U.S.
CHANG: And before, just to be clear, you could seek asylum no matter where you entered the border, right?
HORSLEY: That is the - there is federal law that still says if you make it to U.S. soil, you are entitled to apply for asylum, even if you cross the border illegally. So this new rule would seem to run afoul of that. The White House hopes to get around that by using broad presidential authority to exclude any immigrant or class of immigrants that are deemed detrimental to the interest of the United States. Now, that's the same authority the president used when he issued his travel ban on visitors from a variety of mostly Muslim countries initially in the first week...
HORSLEY: ...Of his administration. You'll remember, Ailsa, that ban was initially blocked by the federal courts. But after a couple of revisions, it was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. So now we have two provisions here that seem to be in conflict. Ultimately, immigration advocates are likely to challenge this move by the administration. And then the courts are going to have to sort it out. In the meantime, you've got the president ordering thousands of active-duty military troops to the border to back up border officers. And Trump has also talked about erecting tent cities where he could detain immigrant families for an indefinite period of time.
CHANG: That's NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. Thanks so much, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.