A federal judge has barred the Trump administration from turning away refugees who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, saying all should be allowed to apply for asylum, regardless of how they entered America.
U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar ruled in favor of legal groups that filed lawsuits after President Donald Trump issued an executive order on November 9 that deemed any illegal border crossers ineligible for asylum if they crossed anywhere other than official ports of entry.
“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.
But the Trump administration argues the Trump executive order is "consistent with our immigration laws."
"The President has the broad authority to suspend or restrict the entry of aliens into the United States if he determines it to be in the national interest to do so," Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a joint statement after Trump took his action.
"Our asylum system is overwhelmed with too many meritless asylum claims from aliens who place a tremendous burden on our resources, preventing us from being able to expeditiously grant asylum to those who truly deserve it. Today, we are using the authority granted to us by Congress to bar aliens who violate a Presidential suspension of entry or other restriction from asylum eligibility.”
Trump said November 9 on the White House lawn: "We want people to come into our country, but they have to come into the country legally."
The Department of Homeland Security says some 70,000 people a year claim asylum after crossing at sites other than official ports of entry. But the judge's ruling notes that under existing federal law, refugees can seek asylum “whether or not at a designated port of arrival" was used.
“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.”
Trump's executive order came as thousands of refugees from across Central America have been marching toward the U.S. border. The "caravans" have begun arriving 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, the Associated Press reported.
As of Monday, 107 people detained between official crossings have sought asylum since Trump’s order went into effect, according to DHS, which oversees Customs and Border Protection. Officials didn’t say whether those people’s cases were still progressing through other, more difficult avenues left to them after the proclamation.
DHS has said it wants asylum seekers at the southern border to appear at an official border crossing. But many border crossings such as San Ysidro already have long 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.