Donald Trump has invoked extraordinary national security powers to deny asylum to migrants who enter the country illegally, tightening the border as caravans of Central Americans slowly approach the US.
The president is using the same powers he used to push through a version of the travel ban that was upheld by the Supreme Court. The proclamation puts into place regulations adopted on Thursday that circumvent laws stating that anyone is eligible for asylum no matter how they enter the country.
“We need people in our country but they have to come in legally and they have to have merit,” Mr Trump said.
The measures are meant to funnel asylum seekers through official border crossings for speedy rulings, officials said, instead of having them try to circumvent such crossings on the nearly 2,000-mile border.
But the busy ports of entry already have long queues, forcing immigration officials to tell some migrants to turn around and come back to make their claims.
The move was spurred in part by caravans of Central American migrants slowly moving north on foot through Mexico but will apply to anyone caught crossing illegally, officials said. It is unknown whether those in the caravan, many fleeing violence in their homeland, plan to cross illegally.
Administration officials said those denied asylum under the proclamation may be eligible for similar forms of protection if they fear returning to their countries, though they would be subject to a tougher threshold.
Those forms of protection include “withholding of removal” — which is similar to asylum, but does not allow for green cards or bringing families — or asylum under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
The announcement was the latest push to enforce Mr Trump’s hardline stance on immigration through regulatory changes and presidential orders, bypassing Congress.
Those efforts have been largely thwarted by legal challenges and, in the case of family separations this year, stymied by a global outcry that prompted him to scrap them. The new changes are likely to be met with legal challenges too.
Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said they were clearly illegal. “US law specifically allows individuals to apply for asylum whether or not they are at a port of entry. It is illegal to circumvent that by agency or presidential decree,” he said.
Curbing immigration has been a signature issue for Mr Trump, who pushed it hard in the days leading up to Tuesday’s midterm elections, railing against the caravans that are still hundreds of miles from the border.
He has made little mention of the issue since the election but has sent troops to the border in response.
On Thursday, there were more than 5,600 US troops deployed to the border mission, with about 550 actually working on the border in Texas.
The military is expected to have the vast majority of the more than 7,000 troops planned for the mission deployed by Monday, and that number could grow.