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Trump Calls For New Restrictions On Asylum-Seekers


The White House has undertaken an all-out campaign to stop the waves of asylum-seekers who are crossing the southwest border. Last night, President Trump issued new orders to make it harder for immigrants who come to this country to ask for protection. The new rules would take away work permits for these migrants, slap a fee on asylum applications and limit the time they can be in immigration court.

NPR's John Burnett joins us now from Austin with more reporting. Hi there, John.


CORNISH: What more did the president say in his memo?

BURNETT: Well, Trump said his memorandum is, quote, "to strengthen asylum procedures and safeguard our system against rampant abuse of our asylum process." And what these new rules seek to do is really make it harder to get asylum and more difficult to remain lawfully in the United States while the cases are pending in immigration court.

It's already tough. Four out of five cases are rejected. And if these new rules are acted on, it becomes even harder. Their cases would have to be decided within six months, which is hard for applicants who don't have an attorney and can't speak English. And applicants who are already poor wouldn't be able to work while they wait, which means they can't support themselves.

The president sent this order to his new acting secretary of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, and to Attorney General William Barr. And he gave them 90 days to put all of the new measures into action.

CORNISH: John, the administration has already taken a number of steps to limit immigration. Why these new steps and why now?

BURNETT: Well, the president's really alarmed at the record number of Central American families that are seeking asylum.

Last month, we heard that 103,000 unauthorized immigrants were taken into custody. Now, a thousand a day being apprehended is typical. And that means DHS is on track to reach a million this year. It's overwhelmed the Border Patrol's capacity to apprehend and detain them all. And the administration is also perturbed by this backlog of 800,000-plus cases in immigration court that take an average of two to three years to clear.

CORNISH: How are immigration advocates responding to these orders?

BURNETT: Well, Democrats and immigrant advocates are in outrage mode again. To name one, Julian Castro, a Texan running for president, he called the new rules truly sickening.

We don't know how much this fee to apply for asylum would be, but Frank Sharry with America's Voice said making immigrants pay to apply for asylum is a mockery of the words on the Statue of Liberty - give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Lee Gelernt, a senior attorney at the ACLU, said there will be unintended consequences. For instance, doing away with work permits would force them into the illegal underground economy. And if you speed up the asylum process, you run the risk of railroading the cases and violating due process. Immigrant advocates say this is just more of the same from this White House.

Here's Melissa Crow. She's senior attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

MELISSA CROW: This is yet another attack by the Trump administration on vulnerable asylum-seekers. We've seen it over and over again.

CORNISH: She says over and over again. And I understand there's been so much news on this administration and immigration in past weeks. Can you kind of give us a recap? What are we looking at at this point?

BURNETT: I mean, there's been so many of these measures. It seems like they're happening almost daily.

I mean, earlier this month, the attorney general said that certain asylum-seekers would be detained and withheld bond while their cases are churning through the system.

And then just yesterday, before Trump's memo was released, we heard from the Department of Defense, and they're sending - on a request from DHS - 320 more troops to the border. They would drive buses full of migrants and help process them and monitor their care while they're in CBP custody. And this time, the soldiers would be in direct contact with detained migrants, although they couldn't enforce immigration laws.

So the administration has been trying anything and everything to stop migrants from coming in the first place. Remember; they separated families at the border last year to act as deterrent. They had to abandon that. And now they've sent more than 1,600 asylum applicants back into Mexican border towns to wait while their cases are considered. And the White House also put pressure on Mexico to block migrants from coming up through Mexico's southern state of Chiapas.

CORNISH: That's NPR's John Burnett. John, thanks for your reporting.

BURNETT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.