The Trump administration published an interim final rule on the federal register Monday further that effectively ends asylum protections for Central American migrants. Under the rule, migrants — including unaccompanied minors — who travel through Mexico without first applying for protection in a “safe third country” are ineligible for asylum in the United States.
The majority of people who claim asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border are from Central American countries in its Northern Triangle region, including Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Migrants from these countries routinely flee gangs, political unrest and domestic violence. Traveling by foot or bus through Mexico is the only viable way they can receive asylum protections in the United States.
“It would end asylum for Central Americans,” Ur Jaddou, former chief counsel for US Citizenship and Immigration Services told Buzzfeed News last month, when the rule was under consideration. It’s not just Central Americans who will be impacted by this new rule, so too will the thousands of migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, and countries in Africa who apply for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a statement from U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, the administration claims this rule is necessary because of overwhelming “burdens associated with apprehending and processing hundreds of thousands of aliens along the southern border.”
“This rule will decrease forum shopping by economic migrants and those who seek to exploit our asylum system to obtain entry to the United States — while ensuring that no one is removed from the United States who is more likely than not to be tortured or persecuted on account of a protected ground,” Barr added, repeating a popular but flawed line of thinking from the Trump administration that harsher immigration policies at the border are necessary to serve as a deterrence.
There are exceptions to the rule that would allow for migrants to apply for other protections in the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act. This includes “victim[s] of a severe form of trafficking in persons” under the Convention Against Torture, but those protections are more temporary and harder to get. There are also exemptions for those who sought protection in a third country but were denied, as well as anyone who traveled through a country that is not part of a major international treaty on the treatment of refugees.
U.S. law is agonizingly vague on what “safe” actually means. The new regulation only says a safe country is one “pursuant to a bilateral or multilateral agreement.” At present, the United States only has a third country agreement with Canada. Mexico and the United States were alleged to have struck up a similar deal, but nothing has been set in stone.
The Trump administration is attempting to enter into a third safe country agreement with Guatemala, but efforts to solidify the deal stalled over the weekend without the approval from the Guatemalan Congress. That Guatemala would enter a “third safe country” agreement with the United States in the first place is almost laughable, considering thousands flee the country each year, citing just how unsafe it is for them to remain. For most migrants leaving Northern Triangle countries, it is literally a life or death situation.
The new rule will affect the thousands of asylum seekers who are following the letter of the law and doing exactly what the administration has asked of them could see their claims denied. The administration’s decision to “meter,” or limit, the number of migrants processed at the border each day has forced people to wait in Mexico for months at a time. The asylum seekers who chose to not cross between their ports of entry and wait for their names to be called will likely be the ones most immediately impacted by this new rule.
This is not the first time the Trump administration has attempted to implement a ban on asylum. In 2018, in response to Central American migrant caravans, the administration attempted to bar asylum for people who cross between ports of entry, flouting U.S. asylum law. That asylum ban was struck down by the courts in November, before it went into effect. This asylum ban 2.0 also is expected to face a court challenge.
“The Trump administration is trying to unilaterally reverse our country’s legal and moral commitment to protect those fleeing danger,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. “This new rule is patently unlawful and we will sue swiftly.”