The Homeland Security Department on Thursday announced a plan to keep Central American asylum-seekers in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings, claiming it would “reduce illegal migration by removing one of the key incentives that encourages people from taking the dangerous journey to the United States in the first place.”
Under the plan, asylum-seekers would be temporarily returned to Mexico after being issued a notice to appear in U.S. immigration court. The department said it reached an agreement with Mexico to issue asylum-seekers humanitarian visas and access to attorneys and the United States for the purpose of appearing in court.
The policy is to take effect immediately, DHS officials told reporters.
The plan represents the latest attempt by the Trump administration to end “catch-and-release,” the practice of releasing asylum-seekers into the United States until they appear in immigration court to make their claim.
“Aliens trying to game the system to get into our country illegally will no longer be able to disappear into the United States, where many skip their court dates,” said Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a news release. “‘Catch and release’ will be replaced with ‘catch and return.’”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte applauded the new asylum policy, stating that it will “enable true asylum seekers to seek that status in a safe and orderly manner.”
Refugee advocates quickly opposed the plan, describing it as a joint effort with Mexico to cut off legal access to asylum by Central American families fleeing gang violence and poverty.
“This deal is a stark violation of international law, flies in the face of U.S. laws passed by Congress, and is a callous response to the families and individuals running for their lives,” said Margaret Huang, the executive director of Amnesty International, in a news release. “Make no mistake — Mexico is not a safe country for all people seeking protection.”
The Trump administration tried to implement a similar asylum policy last month, but Federal District Court Judge Jon S. Tigar of San Francisco intervened and issued a nationwide restraining order on that asylum policy saying that it “irreconcilably conflicts” with existing immigration laws.
Nielsen announced the plan in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, as House Democrats prepared to grill her about the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Guatemalan migrant, in Border Patrol custody in New Mexico earlier this month.
“It’s important to know what led to her death and what steps DHS has taking to prevent a similar tragedy,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the committee’s ranking member.
In her testimony, Nielsen sought repeatedly to portray the situation at the border as one of crisis and framed the death of the girl as part of the human tragedy of the perilous journey north for Central Americans. She also criticized Congress for not passing laws that close immigration loopholes.
“The laws are not keeping up with the migrant flows and the legal loopholes are obvious,” she said. “Despite congressional inaction, we will not wait. We won't standby as the crisis worsens and the human toll grows along the route to the border.”
Democrats also questioned Nielsen on a recent report by DHS’ Office of Inspector General which stated that the Customs and Border Protection’s “metering” practice, which limits the number of people who can be processed daily for asylum, might be contributing to the increase in illegal border crossings.
Nielsen did not comment on the findings of the report but asserted that migrants are very committed to coming into this country. “If they can't get in one way they will try to come in another way,” she said.
In fiscal year 2018, 92,959 individuals who crossed the border illegally or went to the ports of entry requesting asylum were found to have credible fears of returning to their home countries. That compares to fiscal year 2017, when 55,584 individuals requested asylum and were determined by immigration officials to have “credible fears,” the legal term under which people can be given temporary asylum, according to data from DHS.
Immigration courts then later adjudicate the credible fear cases and determine whether people can be given permanent asylum. Many asylum seekers lose in that round and are then deported back to their home countries.
Watch: What Really Happens During a Government Shutdown, Explained