On April 29, 2019, President Trump issued a memorandum to Attorney General William Barr and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan. Within the memo, President Trump outlined a number of policies meant to tighten immigration and asylum rules, while lowering the vast number of asylum seekers attempting to enter the U.S. One such policy calls on immigration courts to process and offer final administrative adjudication on all asylum applications within 180 days of their filing. The memo also proposes implementing an asylum application fee, as well as a fee for asylum applicants seeking to attain employment authorization while they wait for their application to be processed. Furthermore, the memo calls for new regulations that prevent migrants who have entered the U.S. illegally, or have attempted to do so, from acquiring or retaining employment authorization. The president has given the Attorney General and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security 90 days to carry out these reforms.
The president’s proposed policy reforms have sparked their fair share of controversy. “There’s a reason that we give people work permits while they are waiting for asylum,” said Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, “[its] so that they can support themselves and don’t have to be depending on government assistance during that time.” Ms. Brané further questioned the Trump administration’s decision to impose a fee on asylum seekers, stating that, “The entire idea of asylum is that it’s something that you need because you are fleeing some sort of violence or persecution, and to then say that it’s only accessible to people who can pay a fee doesn’t make sense.”
Though the president may seek to implement drastic regulations that bring the situation at the border to a rapid close, the true status of the situation makes such a move incredibly difficult. There are currently more than 800,000 cases pending in immigration courts, and it typically takes nearly two years for courts to fully process cases. Approximately 100,000 migrants are currently approaching the southern border each month, and that number is expected to surpass one million within a year. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently houses over 50,000 migrants – one of its highest numbers in history – which is nearly 5,000 more than the maximum of 45,274 mandated by Congress. This is over a third more migrants than the daily average of those housed in 2016, which sat at 34,376. With this immense number – a number that is currently growing – of asylum seekers approaching the southern border each month, it will likely take more than a few policy proposals to adequately address the situation.
As with previous asylum-oriented policies, these are expected to face legal challenges if they are eventually implemented. Last fall, for example, a federal judge blocked an executive order that sought to prohibit Central Americans who entered the U.S. through legal ports of entry from pursuing asylum protections. Federal judges have also prevented the Trump administration, albeit temporarily, from stripping funding from “sanctuary” cities, revoking temporary work permits, and repealing deportation protections for approximately one million immigrants shielded under past presidential administrations.
Even those that support the Trump administration’s efforts question what effect, if any, executive actions will have on the border situation. “There’s a limit to what regulation is going to be able to do,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes lower immigration levels. “I just don’t see how this can be dealt with short of legislative changes.”
The president’s decision will do little to benefit the U.S.’s relationship with its regional neighbors, particularly Mexico and a number of Central American countries, which has taken a steep dive over the past few months. In March, President Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border, a move that would have not only left an immense number of asylum seekers hoping to enter the U.S. in limbo, but dealt a deep, immediate blow to the economy on both sides of the border. Additionally, the president pledged to cut off aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras for failing to limit the flow of asylum seekers to the U.S. Though public officials, such as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, stressed that such aid is key to promoting development and reducing violence – steps that would likely lead to lower migration rates in the future – President Trump did not budge. While both episodes have, for the most part, faded from the public eye, they nevertheless strained the U.S.’s relationship with these Latin American countries. The president’s move to tighten asylum rules will only strain relations further.
This act by the Trump administration is one of many that have come before, and will likely come again. Though the president has faced numerous legal obstacles in his effort to tighten asylum regulations and limit the immigrant flow through the southern border, such obstacles have never dampened his will. Those that have opposed him, meanwhile, like Democrats and civil society organizations, have also retained their will to challenge the legality of the administration’s moves at every step of the way. For both the president and his legal challengers, this moment is no different. Nevertheless, it is a situation worth observing to understand how far the executive may go to enforce their will on immigration and asylum policy.