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Trump Considering Executive Actions to Stop Asylum-Seekers From Central America

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Trump Considering Executive Actions to Stop Asylum-Seekers From Central America

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President Trump is weighing executive actions that would essentially make it impossible for a large group of Central American migrants to be able to seek refuge in the United States.CreditCreditTamir Kalifa for The New York Times
  • Oct. 26, 2018

President Trump is considering a major speech on Tuesday to announce a broad crackdown on the southern border, administration officials said on Friday, making a significant play to energize his anti-immigrant base one week before midterm congressional elections where Republican control of Congress is at stake.

Mr. Trump is expected to use the remarks to outline his plans to fortify the border, including executive actions he is considering to deny entry to Central American migrants and asylum-seekers, and the deployment of hundreds of United States Army troops to aid in the effort.

A bid to slash financial aid to Central American countries whose citizens are making their way north toward the border also is under discussion, according to people briefed on the discussions.

Even as the president’s advisers met on Friday to nail down the details of the multipronged border operation, human rights groups raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s plans, calling them politically motivated and potentially in violation of United States and international law.

The biggest source of worry is executive action that Mr. Trump is weighing to essentially make it impossible for a large group of Central American migrants trekking north through Mexico to be able to seek refuge in the United States.

The plan, according to people familiar with it who spoke on condition of anonymity, would include a change in the rules governing asylum eligibility along with a presidential proclamation characterizing the so-called caravan as a national emergency and barring its participants from entering the country.

It is not clear that such a presidential directive would be legal either under United States immigration law or international law, both of which contain obligations to evaluate the individual claims of people who present themselves to the authorities and ask for asylum.

In addition, Mr. Trump would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that the caravan — a group currently estimated at 6,000 or fewer people and largely women and children, and is roughly 1,000 miles south of the border — constitutes a national emergency. Given the complex legal issues involved, it could take months or even years for the plan to actually remove would-be immigrants from the United States.

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Migrants from Central America rested in Mexico as they made their way toward the United States border.CreditRebecca Blackwell/Associated Press

Still, in considering the strategy, Mr. Trump appeared to be betting that the political impact would be more immediate. He has called the caravan a “blessing in disguise” for Republicans in the run-up to the Nov. 6 elections, as he seeks to demonize its participants and tie them to Democrats and progressive groups.

“This is much more about the optics before the election than the legality of the president’s action,” said Jennifer Quigley, a refugee specialist at Human Rights First. “The caravan represents such a minuscule number of people coming toward our border that it just strains credulity to say that this is a national emergency that demands immediate action.”

The distinction could be important because the strategy the president is weighing involves circumventing the normal federal rule-making process to impose an immediate change to the rules governing asylum claims, something that can be done only when the government has “good cause” to do so.

Under the plan, which is still under discussion and could change, the Homeland Security and Justice Departments would jointly issue new rules that would disqualify migrants who cross the border in between ports of entry from claiming asylum, according to people familiar with the discussions but who were not authorized to discuss the planning. Exceptions would be made for people facing torture at home.

Mr. Trump would then invoke broad presidential powers to bar foreigners from entering the country for national security reasons — under the same section of immigration law that underpinned the travel ban — to issue a proclamation blocking migrants from crossing the southern border, according to the plans under discussion. It was not clear how broad the directive would be, including whether it would apply only to people from certain countries or those arriving within a certain period of time.

Several refugee advocacy groups condemned the proposal and said they would consider legal action to block it if Mr. Trump followed through.

Omar Jadwat, the director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said it was “disgraceful” that Mr. Trump would even consider such moves.

“It would mean refusing to protect people who can prove they are fleeing persecution,” Mr. Jadwat said. “That would be a huge moral failure, and any plan along these lines will be subject to intense legal scrutiny.”

Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said her group was also ready to challenge Mr. Trump’s actions.

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Border Patrol agents apprehended a man crossing the border from Mexico into the United States near McAllen, Tex.CreditLynsey Addario for The New York Times

“We will use every tool to stop Trump from undermining the Constitution and international laws and from instituting his administration’s agenda to impose a Latinx ban in any form,” Ms. Hincapié said. “We call all communities to reject these policies of hate. We can and must be better than this.”

But Mr. Trump’s advisers and those who share his restrictive views on immigration argue that the president is well within his executive authority to shut down the border to a certain group.

Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said there was precedent for the United States government to put in place contingency plans to block certain groups of foreigners from entering the country, as it did in 1981 after the Mariel boat lift of 1980, when thousands of Cubans had arrived on American shores.

“The statutory authority is explicit that Congress has authorized the president to block the entry of any person or any class of person,” Mr. Krikorian said.

While there are sure to be legal challenges to Mr. Trump’s exercise of such power, he added, “it might be useful in moving the political ball forward and getting these laws changed to have a judge prevent the president from enforcing the border.

“It’s a way of focusing attention on what the real problem is,” he said.

A senior Defense Department official said the Pentagon had already begun identifying active-duty troops to meet the Homeland Security Department’s request for help on the border, although the scale of the deployment still depends in large part on the scope of the action Mr. Trump decides to take. Sealing the border would require more than the 800 to 1,000 troops now envisioned, the official said, and officials from the border state have told the Defense Department that doing so would have a huge economic impact on their local economies.

The Defense Department is seeking to get an initial deployment of the troops to the border by next week, added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official did not have authorization to detail the plans.

The military aspect of the plan, too, drew criticism from human rights groups.

Adam Isacson, the director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, said with migration numbers at historic lows, the government should devote its resources into processing what would probably be a “modest number of children and families who have fled one of the world’s most violent regions in search of protection.”

“There is no precedent in U.S. history for the use of U.S. military personnel, on U.S. soil, to stop unarmed people from asking for asylum in our country,” Mr. Isacson said.

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