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The Trump Administration Aims To Cut Off Asylum At The Southwest Border Permanently


While the country's attention has been focused on the coronavirus, the Trump administration has been making big changes on immigration, especially at the southwest border. Since March, immigration officials have turned away tens of thousands of migrants seeking refuge in the U.S. Immigrant advocates say it is the culmination of a three-year push to end asylum as we know it. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and joins us now.

Hi, Joel.


SHAPIRO: To start with, will you just describe what the Trump administration's view on asylum is?

ROSE: Yeah. Well, the administration has always argued that these asylum-seekers arriving at the southern border are not like the refugees who were fleeing persecution during and after World War II, which is really where U.S. asylum law has its roots. Instead, the administration argues that these migrants are really trying to escape from poverty-stricken countries in Central America and to game the immigration system to get into the U.S. President Trump himself has said that asylum is a scam.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our system is full. We're not taking them anymore, OK? Can't do it.

ROSE: And his administration has been working for years to chip away at asylum protections. And now they've effectively closed the border to asylum-seekers.

SHAPIRO: And how did they justify that? Is it the pandemic?

ROSE: Right. I mean, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order in March when the pandemic was just taking off and closed the border to migrants, saying this needed to be done to protect public health. Advocates say what's happening at the border with asylum is unprecedented, that these migrants are expelled from the U.S. quickly, most with no access to due process, sometimes not even really an explanation of what is happening to them.

SHAPIRO: Let's visit the border and hear some voices from there. Stay with us, Joel. Our colleague Mallory Falk of member station KERA has been talking with asylum-seekers. Here's her report.

MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: When a Salvadoran woman grabbed her 4-year-old daughter and fled their home country, coronavirus wasn't yet a global pandemic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

FALK: She was escaping an abusive ex-partner - the girl's father - who had threatened to kill her. That was in late February. The woman asked us not to use her name out of fear for her safety. She recounts her story over video chat from a government-run shelter in Juarez, Mexico. Her daughter pops in and out of the screen.

By the time they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border a month later, President Trump had shut it down, only letting in essential traffic. So she crossed the Rio Grande planning to ask for asylum. Border Patrol picked her up and took her picture and fingerprints. Then she and her daughter were taken right back to Mexico. Standing on an international bridge, she says she begged immigration officials not to send her back. She says they threatened to press charges if she didn't leave the bridge.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) And they told me they didn't care. They didn't care what happened to my life, that I had to go - whether to Mexico or to El Salvador, to wherever I wanted. But I wasn't getting into the U.S.

FALK: Since late March, immigration officials have turned away thousands of migrants, like this woman and her daughter. They've carried out some 70,000 Title 42 expulsions through June. That's a reference to a federal law that's been around since the 1990s originally meant to stop boats from entering American ports if they came from places hard hit by smallpox or cholera. Before, these migrants would have had a chance to ask for asylum here, and children who crossed by themselves would have been placed in a shelter, then released to a relative or sponsor in the U.S. Now they're just turned away.

TANIA GUERRERO: They have been basically pushed away from the United States with no process whatsoever.

FALK: That's Tania Guerrero, a Juarez-based immigration attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. She says U.S. officials drop these asylum-seekers in the middle of the bridge at all hours of the day and night. They're left to fend for themselves in an unfamiliar city, confused about what just took place.

GUERRERO: The first question to always answer is, what happened to me? They have no idea what happened. Everyone explains it to be extremely fast and that they're not able to express their fears.

FALK: That's a big deal because it means they don't have an opportunity to seek asylum. Customs and Border Protection told NPR these cases are handled on a case-by-case basis. But a spokesman declined to explain how they determine who gets a credible fear interview while the border is closed because of the pandemic. Normally, that's the first step in the asylum process.

The Salvadoran woman never got a chance to ask for asylum. She says U.S. officials didn't explain anything to her. They just told her to leave.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) So I started to cry and left the bridge. Some Mexican officials asked what was going on. I told them I didn't have anywhere to go. I didn't know what to do.

FALK: She and her daughter ended up at a shelter run by the Mexican government, where other asylum-seekers have been waiting for their U.S. court dates. That shelter has been on lockdown since March. But eventually, coronavirus still got in. A dozen migrants tested positive in the outbreak. For NPR News, I'm Mallory Falk in El Paso.

SHAPIRO: And NPR's Joel Rose, who covers immigration, is still with us to reflect on some of the issues that story raises. And, Joel, first I want to ask you about public opinion because NPR just did a poll with Ipsos that found this border shutdown has broad bipartisan support from Americans who desperately want to stop the spread of COVID-19. So what do public health experts say about that?

ROSE: Well, physicians and health experts are skeptical. They say that closing the border to these migrants might make sense on its face, but commerce is still flowing freely across the border. That means truckers, students and others are still crossing the border every day. And public health experts say those people are just as likely to spread coronavirus. And several dozen public health experts signed a letter accusing the administration of using public health as a, quote, "pretext" for denying asylum to these migrants.

SHAPIRO: Has the administration responded to that?

ROSE: Well, the administration is standing behind this policy. In fact, the CDC has extended its order indefinitely. And the Border Patrol says it's working. Texas Public Radio asked agent Rafael Garza about what these public health experts have said, and here's how Garza responded.

RAFAEL GARZA: Whether it's six experts or six Border Patrol agents, I mean, who are you going to trust? Just because they have an expert title in front of the thing - it is a good tool that the United States government is using to mitigate the spread.

ROSE: Since that interview, cases have skyrocketed in Texas, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, even though the Title 42 order is still in place.

SHAPIRO: So with asylum applications almost totally stopped, where do things go from here?

ROSE: The Trump administration has come out with sweeping new regulations that would limit asylum permanently. And that's prompting widespread concern, even among the government officials, who are the first to interview these asylum-seekers to determine if their claims are credible. I talked to Michael Knowles. He spoke to us as a special representative from the union that includes hundreds of asylum officers. And Knowles says the proposed rules would make it all but impossible for migrants arriving at the border to get asylum.

MICHAEL KNOWLES: The impact would be dire, dire consequences for hundreds of thousands of people who are seeking the protection of the U.S. These rules would end asylum as we know it.

SHAPIRO: And are these proposed rules likely to be challenged in court, as so many other Trump administration immigration policies have been?

ROSE: These rules are definitely headed for court once they're final. Lawyers are already trying to fight these Title 42 expulsions. They're especially worried about unaccompanied children who are being turned away. In normal times, those children would get special consideration under the law. But now, instead of putting them into this special foster care system, immigration officials are just putting them up in hotel rooms near the border and essentially putting them on the next plane home. And advocates say that all this is just a way to deny humanitarian protections and to get around laws that the administration has never liked in the first place.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Joel Rose, thank you very much.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.