Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free — provided they pay a fee first. This is the gist of President Donald Trump's latest attempt to undermine America's proud tradition of embracing newcomers, including those seeking asylum.
Trump on Monday ordered fundamental changes to the way America takes in asylum-seekers on the southern border. He wants to impose new work-permit restrictions and further strain the nation's already-overwhelmed immigration courts by demanding faster turnaround on cases.
Most appallingly, he wants to charge an application fee to asylum seekers, who in many cases show up with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Trump's all-out assault on America's immigration norms previously encompassed falsely vilifying migrants as dangerous, separating children from their parents, militarizing border zones and threatening to bus migrants to "sanctuary cities" as a way of retaliating against communities that don't cooperate with federal immigrant-detainer requests. It was only a matter of time before he turned this xenophobic campaign against the most vulnerable migrants — those not just immigrating, but fleeing danger and persecution.
The current asylum system isn't perfect; there are many migrants whose true basis for leaving their home countries is to escape desperate poverty — not, say, religious or political persecution. Threatened U.S. aid cuts to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala only promise to make those poverty conditions worse and prompt more outward migration.
But in general, the system works. Asylum-seekers appear before immigration judges to state their case. Only about 20% of applicants actually are granted asylum.
However, as always on immigration issues, this administration seems determined to circumvent workable solutions and to use whatever scare tactics necessary to whip up anti-immigrant hysteria among Trump's base.
Instead of weeding out false claims of persecution, Trump's new policy will make it more difficult for even those genuinely in need of asylum to get it. Tightening restrictions on work permits while asylum-seekers' cases proceed, for example, will make it harder for those who follow the rules to successfully navigate the asylum system.
Trump and others, particularly his enthusiastically anti-migrant immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, long ago relinquished any benefit-of-the-doubt expectation on immigration issues. Trump's assertions that he is trying to repair a broken immigration system are belied by policies clearly designed to punish the weakest and most vulnerable.
Trump has given immigration officials 90 days to comply with his order — more than enough time for human rights advocates to do what they've had to do so many times already by pulling the administration into court. Federal judges have repeatedly rejected this administration's feeble attempts to legally justify its harsh actions. Human rights advocates should waste no time challenging this latest bid to smother those whose only offense is yearning to breathe free.
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