President Donald Trump signed a new executive order making immigrants ineligible for asylum if they arrive in the U.S. without papers, citing fears over the caravan of Central American refugees that's been slowly making its way to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The policy, which is set to last 90 days, is the administration's latest attempt to crack down on asylum seekers. During the summer, for example, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an order instructing border officials to reject the applications of immigrants who sought asylum based on domestic violence claims.
Immigration advocates and lawyers say Trump's new policy violates U.S. and international law, which states that immigrants are legally allowed to claim asylum regardless of whether they enter the U.S. with or without documentation.
"This is essentially the wall that Donald Trump had hoped to build," Archi Pyati, chief of public policy at the legal and policy advocacy organization Tahirih Justice Center, told Refinery29. "This rule is detrimental to our entire asylum system. It flies in the face of existing law put in place by Congress and changes completely the way that immigrants approaching the border and seeking protection will be treated."
The migrant caravan of several thousand, which is mostly comprised of Central American women and children fleeing violence in their countries, has been a source of conspiracy theories and given Trump a reason to toughen the administration's stance on immigration even further. Under the new policy, immigrants who turn themselves in to authorities and claim asylum after crossing into the country without papers will immediately be detained and deported. Prior to the new rule, asylum seekers, regardless of documentation, were offered a "credible fear" interview to determine whether their claims of persecution are valid. That was just step one of a long, rigorous process that could take years.
Trump is basing the policy on the same provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act he used in early 2017 to enact the travel ban impacting majority-Muslim countries. Like back then, the asylum rule is likely to be challenged in court. Pyati said the Tahirih Justice Center would join the fight: "We’ll be part of the effort to demonstrate to this administration that they cannot just wave their pen and completely change decades of congressional protections that were put in place for refugees."
The center works with immigrant women and girls fleeing gender-based violence, many of whom seek asylum in the U.S. Pyati said that the women she works with often experience severe beatings, sexual assault, and attempted murder at the hands of their intimate partners. The reason they flee their countries and seek refuge in the U.S. many times is due to their own governments' inability to prosecute cases of violence against women.
Although the Trump administration hopes that the policy will stop asylum seekers from trying to make it to the U.S., Pyati said that's unlikely. "Families who are afraid of persecution...are not going to be deterred by a rule like this, because what they're fleeing is so dire that it's worth facing whatever the consequences are here in order to get away from what is there," she said. She pointed at the Obama administration's efforts to detain and deport immigrant families seeking asylum back in 2014. The policies President Obama tried to implement — most of which caused outrage and were overturned by the courts — didn't stop migrants. And now that Trump has threatened to cut funding for Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala due to the caravan, the situation will likely worsen in the region, causing even more refugees to flee.
"Unless we're part of the solution in ending the root causes in the home countries, we're going to continue to see these migration patterns," Pyati said. "We have two choices: One is to act under our laws and international obligations that require us to treat human beings like human beings and afford them the rights they deserve. The other choice is to behave like this; to close the doors, violate the law, and turn people away to face violence that's unconscionable."