Trump Tightens Asylum Policy in Latest Effort to Curtail Immigration

A volunteer for Catholic Charities speaks to immigrants, most seeking political asylum, who were released from U.S. government detention on November 3, 2018 in McAllen, Texas.

A volunteer for Catholic Charities speaks to immigrants, most seeking political asylum, who were released from U.S. government detention on November 3, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

November 9, 2018

Updated Nov. 20: In a Nov. 19 ruling, a federal judge granted a restraining order temporarily halting the Trump administration’s tightened asylum policy, in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Trump administration took new steps this week in its effort to curtail migrants at the United States’ southern border, formalizing a policy under which many people who enter the U.S. unlawfully will be ineligible to claim asylum.

Announcing the new rule was the first major action by acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who replaced Jeff Sessions on Nov. 7. Whitaker’s joint announcement with Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen asserted that the president has “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.” It was followed by a proclamation signed by President Donald Trump, who said the step was necessary “to maintain the effectiveness of the asylum system for legitimate asylum seekers who demonstrate that they have fled persecution and warrant the many special benefits associated with asylum.”

The policy could face a legal challenge: U.S. and international law allows anyone – man, woman or child – fleeing violence to seek asylum. “It is illegal to circumvent that by agency or presidential decree,” Omar Jadwat, the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project director, said in a statement on Thursday. [Update: On Friday, the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit opposing the policy.]

This is the latest effort by the administration to deter migrants from crossing the southern border. In the July documentary Separated: Children at the Border, FRONTLINE went inside the origins and impact of the administration’s previous major effort: a “zero tolerance” policy mandating that adults who enter the country unlawfully be criminally prosecuted, and separated from the children they brought with them. Nearly 3,000 children were separated from their parents before Trump’s executive order halted the practice in June; some have yet to be reunited with their families.

The film features numerous families who fled violence in Central America for the United States. Stream the full documentary, which also examined at the Obama administration’s efforts to address a growing backlog of asylum seekers, below:


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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