On Monday, President Donald Trump intensified his administration’s crackdown on immigrants including asylum seekers from various Central American countries at the Mexican border. In a memo sent to acting secretary of homeland security Kevin McAleenan and Attorney General William P. Barr, Trump ordered that asylum seekers should pay application fees and face work permit restrictions.
Trump, who has a track record of adopting hardline approaches to the United States’ increasingly troubling immigration issue, has taken another step in his efforts to reshape the laws on asylum. Under the present political system, the responsibility for doing so lies in the hands of Congress.
Aside from making immigration his campaign’s major issue and providing more detailed policy agenda on it, he has also taken major actions since taking office. These included banning nationals of eight countries, most of them Muslim-dominated nations, from entering the country; reducing refugee admissions since the program’s creation in 1980; and cancelling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Trump’s latest memo will likely make it more difficult for asylum seekers to get into the country on two fronts.
First, asylum seekers have to pay an application fee for processing their asylum and employment authorization applications. Prior to Trump’s memo, these were processed for free.
Officials at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security haven’t issued implementing rules about the application fees. It’s also unclear and uncertain how asylum seekers with little to nothing except for the shirt on their backs are going to afford the payment.
Even if the memo specifically stated that the processing fee wouldn’t exceed the cost of processing applications, officials have yet to provide estimates.
Second, asylum seekers who has tried to enter or has entered the United States illegally will not receive provisional work permits. Officials are also directed to immediately revoke work authorizations for individuals who have been denied asylum and ordered deported.
Trump also directed that immigration cases that are already filed in the courts should be settled within 180 days. In the 176-page report of the American Bar Association (ABA), the group warns of the “existential crisis” in the immigration courts due to the sheer number of cases in them.
According to the ABA, the number of pending cases was more than 760,000 at the end of 2018. If these numbers aren’t reduced quickly, the immigration court system will likely collapse. In this line, Trump wants the immigration courts to be de-clogged through the memo in addition to increasing the number of immigration court judges in the past.
But the memo doesn’t provide more details about how immigration courts should resolve pending cases within 180 days. There are more than 800,000 pending cases in these courts and the average waiting time is nearly two years.
Trump may even have worsened the backlog issue by directing the reopening of non-violent removal cases. Immigration authorities in charge of this task will have plenty of things to do considering that there are literally thousands of these cases.
However, Trump’s directives will not immediately take effect. Administration officials have 90 days to formulate implementing rules and regulations in carrying out the President’s orders. The memo, furthermore, represents the first in a possible series of asylum policy changes since McAleenan came into office.
Prior tightening of asylum-related measures included limiting the number of immigrants who can apply for asylum status per day, tightening the qualifications for asylum, and determining where asylum seekers have to wait while waiting for the resolution of their cases. These policies have been the subject of contention in several federal court cases and it’s likely to continue with the new presidential memo.
Analysts say that the memo will be McAleenan’s first test in office. He has to fulfill Trump’s directive to “strengthen asylum procedures to safeguard our system against rampant abuse of our asylum process.”
The backlash has been swift, too. The director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission Michelle Brané said in reaction to the memo, “There’s a reason that we give people work permits while they are waiting for asylum, so that they can support themselves and don’t have to be depending on government assistance during that time.”
2020 Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro said that the orders are “truly sickening”. On his Twitter post, he called out Trump’s directive to charge asylum seekers with a fee, especially as these are families “fleeing violence and turmoil” in their home countries.
Trump defended his directive on Twitter by saying, “The Coyotes and Drug Cartels are in total control of the Mexico side of the Southern Border.” He asserted that they have nearby drug laboratories with the drugs being sold in the United States. He also called Mexico as among the “most dangerous” countries in the world and the U.S. government has to eradicate the problem now.
And to emphasize his point, he ended the tweet with, “Also, stop the MARCH to U.S.”