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Trump Administration Rolls Out Plan Aimed At Deterring Asylum-Seekers


When we reported from El Paso, Texas, recently, we were interviewing families who had crossed into the U.S. to claim asylum. Some described being threatened by gangs in Central America. Others were describing immense poverty. President Trump evidently does not believe those stories. At a campaign rally last week, he called the asylum process a big, fat con job.

And now his administration is making the U.S. less welcoming to people who want to make a legal asylum claim. Attorney General William Barr issued an order yesterday that could keep some asylum-seekers detained while they wait for their cases to be heard - a wait that can last months or years.

NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and joins us to talk about this. Hi, Joel.


GREENE: So what exactly is this order?

ROSE: Well, Attorney General William Barr is directing immigration judges not to issue bond to some of the migrants who've sought asylum in the U.S. This means potentially thousands and thousands of asylum-seekers will be stuck in detention until whenever their cases are heard in immigration court. And right now there is a huge backlog. So as you said, they are looking at, in most cases, years.

GREENE: So in terms of who this might apply to - I mean, I know some people cross illegally and make an asylum claim. We were meeting families in Texas who came and surrendered at a legal port of entry. I mean, they were held a few days. The system is so overwhelmed right now, they were given a court date and released, you know, within a few days. I mean, would this new order apply to those families?

ROSE: So there are a couple of exceptions that this order likely would not apply to. One of them is migrant families and children because there are strict court limits on how long immigration authorities can detain children, in particular. Also, migrants who seek asylum at legal ports of entry - that's a different process and not something that this decision will affect directly.

You know, there are thousands of migrants arriving at the border every day. And immigration authorities say the system is so overwhelmed that, you know, they are, in many cases, just - Border Patrol is just releasing the migrants, which is I think what you saw when you were down in El Paso.

But, you know, in theory, migrants who've crossed the border illegally are detained or can be detained by immigration authorities. And then, if they pass the first hurdle of their asylum claim by showing a credible fear of persecution or torture back home, then they can ask an immigration judge to release them on bond. And if the judge decides there's no reason to hold them, the migrants can be released until their full hearing - at least, that's how it worked until now for the last decade or so. But Attorney General Barr's decision is - overturns that precedent.

GREENE: Why is it his decision? I mean, if these are judges who are making this decision, does the attorney general have the power to tell judges what to do?

ROSE: In a word, yes. Immigration courts are not like criminal courts. They're part of the Department of Justice. And so, yes, the attorney general can set legal precedent that immigration judges have to follow. And yet, at the same time, this decision is likely to be challenged in court - overwhelmingly likely, I would say. Michael Tan is a lawyer with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project.

MICHAEL TAN: You can't lock people up without giving them the basic hearing before a judge, where that judge can look at the person and determine if they need to be locked up in the first place.

ROSE: So the ACLU and other immigrants' rights groups will be challenging the administration on this in court. They're already fighting in court in another case about bond hearings for asylum-seekers in western Washington, in Seattle. So that's where this challenge is likely to play out.

GREENE: OK, so we might see a long legal process here, a legal debate over whether this is - this new policy is possible. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration for us. Joel, thanks, as always.

ROSE: Oh, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.