Updated at 12:06 p.m. ET
Migrants who cross the U.S. southern border and seek asylum will be forced to wait in Mexico while their claims are being processed, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Thursday.
Currently, people claiming asylum are allowed to stay in the U.S. — sometimes in detention — while their claim is pending in immigration court. The new policy will send such migrants to Mexico for the duration of that process.
That’s true regardless of the migrants’ country of origin: Many people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are not Mexican, but are fleeing violence in Central America.
The immigrants will still “be interviewed by a U.S. asylum officer, but they will no longer be released into the interior with a notice to appear in immigration court,” NPR’s John Burnett reports. “DHS has long complained that many applicants simply disappear and never show up for their hearing.”
Speaking before lawmakers on Thursday, Nielsen also emphasized that DHS cannot detain families with children for more than a few weeks under U.S. law, which is not enough time for an asylum claim to be processed.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration began separating children from parents who were being prosecuted for illegally crossing the border, a policy which horrified many Americans and was ultimately found to be illegal. Sending families back to Mexico would provide an alternate method for the administration to avoid releasing such families into the U.S.
The Mexican government, while affirming its own sovereign rights to determine who enters the country, said it would allow the practice. Mexico also said it would extend some rights and protections to the non-Mexican asylum-seekers on Mexican soil who await immigration hearings in the U.S.
The migrants will receive humanitarian visas, have the opportunity to apply for work permits and have access to legal services, Mexico said.
Last month, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had reached a deal with Mexico to allow asylum-seekers to remain south of the border while their claims were processed. However, governments of both countries would not publicly confirm that a plan was in place, in part because the Mexican government was days away from a transition of power.
The announcement on Thursday appears to confirm those early reports.
In late November, Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said there were questions about the legality of such a proposal.
“One thing we know right off the bat is that it cannot be legal unless they can assure all the asylum seekers who will be stranded in Mexico … will be safe — not only from persecution by state actors in Mexico, but by criminal gangs,” Gelernt told NPR. “And from what we know about what’s going on, we see no likelihood that that is going to be true.”
The news comes during a time of close national attention to issues of immigration and asylum, as President Trump continues to denounce migration as a national security threat, and critics of the administration’s actions accuse the White House of inhumane policies.
The recent arrival of a caravan of Central American migrants at the U.S. southern border brought fresh attention to asylum-seekers, particularly after a clash between protesters and Border Patrol agents.
The Trump administration has been setting limits on the number of people allowed to claim asylum at those ports of entry per day. The result has been a massive backlog of migrants waiting to claim asylum — in addition to a backlog of migrants who have claimed asylum and are awaiting processing.
The death of a 7-year-old migrant girl in Border Patrol custody this month has brought fresh outrage to the debate.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to seek funding for his border wall — which he had originally claimed would be paid for by Mexico. He recently said that Mexico is essentially paying for the wall through the new deal to replace NAFTA, a claim which is not true.