The Trump administration proposed a major rewrite of the asylum system Wednesday, curtailing the types of dangers that can qualify for protections and effectively barring those who fear domestic abuse or gang violence from getting asylum.
Officials said they are returning asylum to what Congress intended: a protection for racial, political or religious minorities fleeing government persecution, rather than a safety valve for more mundane developing-world problems.
Under the proposed rule, issued by the Homeland Security and Justice departments, migrants who traveled through other countries to reach the U.S. could be denied asylum. Domestic abuse, personal feuds, endemic crime or gang violence would no longer be considered to be distinct social groups, and therefore would not be, on their face, a reason to claim asylum.
“That’s not the way the system was designed. It’s not the way it’s supposed to function,” a senior Justice Department official said in describing the change to reporters.
Bogus claims could also be dismissed by an immigration judge without having to go to trial, and judges and asylum officers would be told to look more skeptically at cases in which migrants used fraudulent documents.
Asylum is the protection granted to migrants fleeing persecution who reach U.S. soil. They are similar to refugees, who apply for protection from outside the U.S.
The statuses are supposed to be granted to people being persecuted because they belong to a specific social group, such as a minority religion or an out-of-power political group. Successful claims are supposed to prove that the government was either involved in the persecution or was so indifferent to it that it amounted to the same thing.
In recent years, the number of asylum cases has soared as Central Americans have streamed north, crossing Mexico to enter the U.S. and demand protections.
Trump administration officials argue that most of those are regular illegal immigrants seeking better jobs or to reunite with family, but are making bogus asylum claims to take advantage of U.S. law. Few will end up qualifying, but many use the lengthy process to gain a foothold in the U.S. and disappear into the shadows.
The administration has tried to change that calculus, but Wednesday’s proposal is the most thorough legal attempt yet.
The proposed rule stretches 161 pages, will be published next week, and gives the public 30 days to comment on it. That’s a tighter timeline than usual, suggesting a determination to complete the process during this term of the Trump administration.
If finalized, the rule would wipe away some immigration case law that has built up over the years and has complicated the asylum system, in some instances putting claims from political dissidents fleeing government hit squads on par with those fleeing regular criminal behavior.
“There are many parts of society in any country that are unfortunate and that are problems for societies wherever you are. Whether that’s crime, whether that’s domestic violence, whether that’s gang activity,” the Justice Department official said.
He said the new rule is designed to make sure those claims, alone, aren’t enough to signify someone is part of a persecuted group.
Claims involving gangs or domestic violence have been particularly prevalent among the surge of migrants from Central America in recent years, and they have helped clog the docket of the nation’s immigration courts.
Andrew R. Arthur, a former immigration judge and now resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the changes will give asylum officers and immigration judges a bright line to judge cases.
He said it will eliminate some of the incentives that draw illegal immigrants to the U.S. while clearing space on the docket for valid cases.
“They’re trying to deter frivolous claims so that meritorious claims can be heard more quickly,” he said.
Immigrant rights advocates were incensed, saying the changes would upend the asylum system altogether.
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, said the new definitions regarding persecuted social groups would block nearly all Central Americans from gaining asylum. So would the rules on traversing other countries.
“Under the terms of the proposed rule, only Mexicans, Canadians, and people who come on a non-stop flight can apply for asylum,” he wrote on Twitter.
The new rules come on top of a series of moves the administration already made.
Thanks to deals with Mexico and Central American nations, the U.S. is pushing most asylum-seekers who cross the U.S.-Mexico border back into Mexico to await their cases.
That has deterred a number of people from even making the attempt, Homeland Security says.
During the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration has triggered a part of public health law that allows immediate expulsion of unauthorized border crossers, cutting numbers even further.