WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden's administration on Thursday will begin denying asylum to migrants who show up at the U.S.-Mexico border without first applying online or seeking protection in a country they passed through, according to a new rule released Wednesday.
It's part of new measures meant to crack down on illegal border crossings while creating new legal pathways, including a plan to open 100 regional migration hubs across the Western Hemisphere, administration officials said.
While stopping short of a total ban, the measure imposes severe limitations on asylum for those crossing illegally who didn't first seek a legal pathway. The rule was first announced in February, but the finalized version takes effect Thursday. More than 50,000 people commented on it, but in the end it didn't appear to substantively change. It’s almost certain to face legal challenges. In 2019, then-President Donald Trump pursued similar but stricter measures, but a federal appeals court prevented them from taking effect.
The administration painted the rule as a way to reduce the number of migrants showing up at the border while still allowing people with legitimate claims a chance at asylum. Officials also emphasized the complex dynamics at play when it comes to immigration that at one time consisted largely of adults from Mexico seeking to come to the U.S. They could easily be returned home. Now migrants come from nations across the Western Hemisphere and beyond.
“Economic and political instability around the world is fueling the highest levels of migration since World War II, including in the Western Hemisphere,” the rule said, with known crossings from Mexico reaching an all-time high last year due to an “unprecedented exodus of migrants at different times from countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela.”
The rule was immediately met with criticism. Groups that help immigrants called it “ludicrous," “life-threatening" and “misguided.”
“With its new rule formalizing sweeping restrictions on asylum access, the Biden administration is putting border politics ahead of the safety of refugees," said Jeremy Konyndyk, the president of Refugees International.
The rule does include room for exceptions for anyone with “an acute medical emergency” or facing “imminent and extreme threat to life or safety, such as an imminent threat of rape, kidnapping, torture or murder.” It does not apply to children traveling alone but will apply to families.
U.S. officials also said they had plans to open regional hubs around the hemisphere, where migrants could apply to go to the U.S., Canada or Spain. Two hubs were previously announced in Guatemala and Colombia. It's unclear where the other locations would be. The administration officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing border plans that were not yet public.
The measures are all meant to fundamentally alter how migrants go to the U.S. southern border. COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions that are ending this week had allowed border officials to quickly return people — and they did so 2.8 million times. But even as the restrictions, known as Title 42, were in effect, border crossings rose to all-time highs. Congress has failed to make any major immigration law changes in decades.
U.S. officials are bracing for large numbers of migrants who may try to cross the border this week, possibly to circumvent the new rules. Others were waiting until after Title 42 goes away, thinking their chances might be better. Once the change happens, migrants caught crossing illegally will not be allowed to return for five years, and they can face criminal prosecution if they do. The administration said in the new rule that as many as 11,000 migrants per day could try to cross the border after Title 42 lifts, absent any changes.
Roughly 24,000 law enforcement officers were stationed along the 1,951-mile (3,140-kilometer) border with Mexico. An additional 1,500 active-duty military troops are being sent to back up U.S. Customs and Border Protection but will not interact with migrants. And 2,500 National Guard troops are already there, tasked to help out CBP.
Biden said Tuesday his administration was working to make the change orderly. “But it remains to be seen,” he told reporters. “It’s going to be chaotic for a while.”
The Democratic administration will return migrants from Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua to Mexico if they do not apply online, have a sponsor and pass a background check. It will admit 30,000 per month from those nations to the U.S. with legal papers to work for two years. Mexico will continue to take back the same number who cross illegally.
In the Mexican border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, groups on Tuesday handed out flyers that explained in English and Haitian Creole how to register for the CBP One app, which the U.S. has been using to allow migrants to schedule an appointment to try to gain admittance. Authorities plan to increase the number of appointments amid widespread frustration, and they're prioritizing people who have been waiting longest for appointments.
Standing in Reynosa’s central square, Haitian migrant Phanord Renel said he would not risk deportation to cross. “We don’t want to go back there (Haiti) because the situation is very complicated there,” he said. “If we can’t cross, we have to put up with it here. Maybe the government will do something for us. But cross illegally — no.”
Immigration officials are also planning to deploy as many as 1,000 asylum officers to conduct expedited screenings for asylum seekers to more quickly determine whether someone meets the standard to stay in the U.S.
Most of the people going to the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are fleeing persecution or poverty in their home countries. They ask for asylum and have generally been allowed into the U.S. to wait out their cases. That process can take years under a badly strained immigration court system, and it has prompted increasing numbers to go to the border hoping to get into the U.S.
Even though many ask for asylum, the legal pathway is narrow, and most do not meet the standard.
Authorities have spent months setting up interview rooms and phone lines at facilities along the border to facilitate screenings, part of a broad effort to expand the use of expedited removal proceedings aimed at migrants who forgo legal pathways to come to the U.S.