HOUSTON — A federal judge has barred the Trump administration from refusing asylum to immigrants who cross the southern border illegally.
President Donald Trump issued a proclamation on Nov. 9 circumventing immigration law, saying anyone who crossed the southern border between official ports of entry would be ineligible for asylum.
As the first of several caravans of migrants have started arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump said the restrictions were necessary to stop what he’s called a national security threat. He also sent thousands of active-duty troops to the border to back up immigration officials there.
But in his ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar agreed with legal groups that immediately sued, arguing that U.S. immigration law clearly allows someone to seek asylum even if they enter the country between official ports of entry and temporarily barred the ruling from going into place while the case is heard.
“Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden,” said Tigar, a nominee of former President Barack Obama.
It was the latest legal challenge to thwart the Trump administration’s effort to harden the U.S.-Mexico border without Congress changing any laws, including an effort to try to detain migrant families in long-term facilities. Trump stopped family separations at the border earlier this year after a global outcry, but it was a federal judge who ruled the administration had to reunify the families.
Monday’s ruling remains in effect for one month, barring an appeal. In limiting asylum, Trump used the same powers he used to impose a travel ban — the third try was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court.
A joint statement by Homeland Security and the Justice Department said the Supreme Court had already shown the president had the legal right to restrict asylum.
“Our asylum system is broken, and it is being abused by tens of thousands of meritless claims every year,” the departments said. “We look forward to continuing to defend the Executive Branch’s legitimate and well-reasoned exercise of its authority to address the crisis at our southern border.”
The regulations were put in place in part to stop what the government says are loopholes that allow thousands of people to avoid deportation. Homeland Security estimates around 70,000 people a year claim asylum after crossing illegally. But — illegal crossings overall are well below historical highs from previous decades.
Tigar’s ruling notes that federal law says someone may seek asylum if they have arrived in the United States, “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.”
“Individuals are entitled to asylum if they cross between ports of entry,” said Baher Azmy, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which sued the government alongside the American Civil Liberties Union. “It couldn’t be clearer.”
Around 3,000 people from the first of the caravans have arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, across the border from San Diego, California. U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Monday that it closed off northbound traffic for several hours at the San Ysidro crossing to install movable, wire-topped barriers after reports that some migrants were planning to rush through the lanes — but none did.
As of Monday, Homeland Security said it had referred 107 people to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — people who had sought asylum between official crossings since Trump’s order went into effect. Officials didn’t say whether those people’s cases were still progressing through other, more difficult avenues left to them after the proclamation.
Administration officials said the asylum law changes were meant to funnel migrants through official border crossings for speedy rulings instead of having them try to evade such crossings on the nearly 2,000-mile border.
But many border crossings such as San Ysidro already have extensive wait times. People are often forced to wait in shelters or outdoor camps on the Mexican side, sometimes for weeks.
ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said that some people seeking asylum cross between official ports because “they’re in real danger,” either in their countries of origin or in Mexico.
“We don’t condone people entering between ports of entry, but Congress has made the decision that if they do, they still need to be allowed to apply for asylum,” he said.
The U.S. military has deployed 5,800 active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. Another 2,100 National Guard troops have also been deployed since April as part of a separate mission.
They are not allowed to detain illegal crossers.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Colleen Long contributed to this report.