The proposal, which must go through a public comment period before it is finalized, lists seven criminal areas, including some low-level crimes, that would bar migrants from claiming asylum in addition to federal restrictions already in place. It also would remove a requirement for immigration judges to reconsider some asylum denials.
It's another push to restrict asylum by President Donald Trump's administration, which claims migrants are gaming the system so they can spend years in the U.S. despite their ineligibility, in part because of a lower bar for initial screenings. Most of the people who claim asylum are fleeing violence, poverty and corruption in their home countries.
Immigrant advocates and humanitarian groups have criticized Trump's hard-line policies as inhumane and have said the U.S. is abdicating its role as a safe haven for refugees. But an immigration court backlog has reached more than 1 million cases, and border agencies were overwhelmed this year by hundreds of thousands of Central American families that require more care-giving and are not easily returned over the U.S.-Mexico border.
In an effort to stop the flow of migrants, the Department of Homeland Security, which manages immigration, has sent more than 50,000 migrants back over the border to wait out asylum claims. The migrants often are victimized in violent parts of Mexico and sickened by unsanitary conditions in what have become large refugee camps. Homeland Security officials also have signed agreements with Guatemala and other Central American nations to send asylum seekers there. The first families have already been sent to Guatemala.
“The administration has been restricting asylum in a very comprehensive way — first, who gets to the border in the first place, second, who is able to apply for asylum and who ultimately receives asylum, and this is getting at that third stage,” said Sarah Pierce, policy analyst for the U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute think tank.
The Justice Department also has taken aim at so-called sanctuary cities, like New York and Chicago, which do not assist Homeland Security agents with immigration-related requests. New York officials, for example, say they do not believe immigrants should be deported for minor offenses and won't notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they have an immigrant in their custody. Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf complained about such policies.
“I think what we are doing is playing politics with public safety,” Wolf said recently in a Fox News Channel interview on New York laws. "That is really concerning from protecting the homeland perspective, making sure that DHS law enforcement officers have the data and the tools that they need to protect their communities.”
The proposed new rules would make asylum seekers ineligible if they were convicted of a felony or if they were arrested repeatedly on domestic violence charges. Other crimes include: low-level convictions for false identification or unlawful receipt of public benefits. Plus: smuggling or harboring immigrants, illegal reentry, a federal crime involving street gang activity or driving while under the influence of an intoxicant.
It's not clear how many asylum seekers are actually convicted of crimes, but 74,000 of the 143,000 people arrested by ICE officers during the 2019 budget year, which ended Sept. 30, were convicted or arrested on charges of driving under the influence, in addition to being in the U.S. illegally.
These crimes are in addition to other bars already in place through federal asylum laws. The changes were made so that the departments “will be able to devote more resources to the adjudication of asylum cases filed by non-criminal aliens,” according to a joint release Wednesday by the Justice Department and Homeland Security.
For the budget year 2018, there were about 105,500 asylum applications by those who came to the U.S. and were not in deportation proceedings first. The figure decreased by 25% from the previous budget year.
During the same period, the number of asylum applications by migrants who were already in court for deportation proceedings increased about 12%, to 159,473, mostly migrants from Central America and Mexico.
According to Homeland Security data, the total number of people granted asylum increased 46%, to 38,687, in 2018. The top countries were China, Venezuela and El Salvador.