Over the past few weeks, the Trump administration has taken a number of steps to slow the rate at which asylum seekers may receive admittance into the U.S.
On July 24, 2019, a federal court dealt yet another blow to the Trump administration’s asylum policy. Ruling from San Francisco, U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar struck down the Trump administration’s most recent effort to stem the flow of migrants attempting to apply for asylum. On July 16, the Trump administration issued a new rule, declaring that migrants must apply for – and be denied – asylum in all the countries that they pass through on their way to the U.S. if they want to be considered for asylum there. A migrant hoping to make their way to the U.S. from El Salvador or Honduras, for example, would have to apply for and be denied asylum in both Guatemala and Mexico if they simply wanted to apply in the U.S. While the Trump administration believed that such a policy would crack down on those seeking to “[exploit] American generosity,” Judge Tigar disagreed. He ultimately issued a preliminary injunction against the Trump administration, blocking the policy as well as ordering that the government reinstitute the previously-existing system.
This decision contradicted one made that same day, but in a different court. U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly, ruling on a similar case in Washington, DC, argued that the Trump administration’s policy would not cause “irreparable harm” to the two advocacy groups who opposed the new rule. However, the ruling by Judge Tigar supersedes Kelly’s, as the rule does not have the possibility of being carried out until the proper judicial authorities may better understand the legal issues surrounding the case. If the Trump administration appeals the decision – which it is likely to – then the Ninth Circuit Court will review the case.
The Trump administration announced this policy without garnering the explicit consent of Guatemala and Mexico. However, it has since made some progress. On July 26, the U.S. and Guatemala signed a new migration agreement, in which Guatemala confirmed its status as a so-called “safe third country.” Yet Guatemala did not do so eagerly. Threatening to impose tariffs, the Trump administration mandated that Guatemala either implement a new migration accord on the U.S.’ terms or risk economic backlash. Even though the President achieved this deal, it is an ironic victory of sorts, as Guatemala actually has the highest number of asylum seekers and migrants captured at the U.S. southern border.
This step by the Trump administration to tighten U.S. migration policy is not the only one it has made in recent weeks. On July 22, the Trump administration announced that it will dramatically expand its fast-track deportation policy. Under the fast-track system, immigration officers may deport anyone that has illegally resided in the U.S. for less than two years, without allowing said individual to appear before a judge. Though implemented in 1996, the policy garnered little attention until 2004, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that it would enforce the policy against those that were arrested within two weeks of arriving in the U.S. by land and detained within 100 miles of the border. With its broader scope, however, the Trump administration has expanded the policy’s reach. Acting DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan stressed that the administration is implementing this policy with the chief goal of reducing the immense case backlog, which is weighing down courts and overwhelming accommodations in southern border detention facilities.
The ACLU pledged to sue the administration and block the policy. “Under this unlawful plan, immigrants who have lived here for years would be deported with less due process than people get in traffic court,” stated Omar Jawdat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. Critics of the policy also stressed that it may be difficult for those that have resided in the U.S. for more than two years to prove so, potentially leading to the deportation of individuals not targeted under the act. Only a limited set of exceptions may protect individuals from being deported under the policy, such as displaying fear at returning home.
In addition to both of these policies, the Trump administration announced that they would narrow the scope of individuals whom they would qualify as asylum seekers. Federal law allows migrants to apply for asylum if they meet at least one of a handful of preconditions, which include a fear of persecution in their home country because of their race, nationality, or political opinions. The law extends to cover members of “particular social groups,” which has included members of families specifically targeted by extremely dangerous groups, like drug cartels. Attorney General William P. Barr, speaking on behalf of the Trump administration noted that the U.S. now viewed members of families through a far narrower lens. Instead of simply possessing “genetic ties” to a family typically targeted by dangerous groups, the family in question should possess “socially distinct” traits. These families would likely include, according to Barr, “large and prominent clans” that have previously undergone persecution in certain countries.
Migrant advocacy groups are likely to challenge this policy in court. The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, for example, has already lamented the law as “shameful.”
Though these policies – or, more specifically, their interpretation – may be new, they reveal nothing new about the Trump administration’s migration policy. Earlier this year, President Trump issued a number of rules meant to tighten U.S. migration policy. These included charging a fee for those seeking to apply for asylum, as well as a fee for those pursuing employment authorizations while waiting for the processing of their asylum application. Continuing this approach with his most recent rules, the President has shown little hesitation in shrinking migration numbers at deep costs, even though almost every step is met with legal backlash. Additionally, the Trump administration’s willingness to pressure states like Guatemala into accepting a migration accord that better meets their interests emphasizes the short-term scope of the White House’s strategy. Even though the administration may achieve this deal and benefit from it in the short-term, it will invariably damage the U.S.’ relationship with Guatemala – and Central America – in the long-term. Not only will these states experience instability from the influx of asylum seekers, but they will resent being bullied into accepting an agreement they never wanted as well.
With approximately 14 months until Election Day 2020, President Trump will almost certainly continue to come down hard on migration, viewing it as a key issue with his political base. Yet the price of this political move has proven, and will continue to prove, steep, with U.S. migrant policy constant under question, and the fates of tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of asylum seekers perpetually up in the air.