Migrants from Central America flee a sports center camp in fear of being detained, in Huixtla, in a southeastern state of Mexico. (The New York Times photo)
By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Thomas Gibbons-Neff
President Donald Trump is considering taking executive action to bar migrants, including asylum-seekers, from entering the country at the southern border, according to people familiar with the plan. The effort would be the starkest indication yet of Trump’s election-season push to play to his anti-immigrant base as his party fights to keep control of Congress.
The proposal amounts to a sweeping use of presidential power to fortify the border and impose the kind of aggressive immigration restrictions and enforcement measures that Trump has made his signature pursuit.
The plan is expected to prompt a swift challenge in federal courts.
The move would be the most drastic in a series of steps that Trump has taken or threatened to take in recent days — including preparations Thursday to send as many as 1,000 active-duty Army troops to help secure the southern border — as he works to stop what he has called an “onslaught” of immigrants only days before the midterm elections.
As part of that effort, the president has capitalized this month on the thousands of Central American migrants trekking north through Mexico. Many in the group are women and children believed to be seeking refuge from violence and economic hardship. He said without evidence this week that criminals and “unknown Middle Easterners” were “mixed in” among the people in the migrant caravan and has blamed its formation on Democrats, falsely charging that they support allowing immigrants to stream, unchecked, into the country.
The caravan is still more than 1,000 miles south of the border, and it is unclear when or whether the migrants will arrive, or how many will seek to cross into the United States.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on the plan for executive action on the border and referred questions about the troop deployment to the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
Details of the plan were still being completed Thursday, according to the people who described it, all of whom insisted on anonymity to discuss a proposal that is still under development. The president, who is prone to changing his mind, could still decide not to take action, they stressed.
But three people briefed on the plan said it envisioned Trump issuing a proclamation Tuesday. It would invoke broad presidential powers to bar foreigners from entering the country for national security reasons — under the same section of immigration law that underpinned the travel ban — to block Central American migrants from crossing the southern border, they said.
At the same time, the administration would put in place new rules that would disqualify migrants who cross the border in between ports of entry from claiming asylum, according to those briefed. Exceptions would be made for people facing torture at home.
Taken together, the actions would effectively prevent hundreds of people in the caravan from gaining entry into the United States and making an asylum claim. But the longer-term implications could be more profound, potentially shutting down altogether an avenue — permitted under both U.S. and international law — that many people fleeing violence and persecution use to take refuge here.
According to American immigration law, people arriving at ports of entry on the U.S. border have the right to seek asylum, and, if they demonstrate a “credible fear” of returning home, to have their claims processed with the possibility of eventually being granted legal status to stay. Those who do not go to a checkpoint but are apprehended crossing the border without authorization can also make such a claim and must, under the law, be afforded a chance to have their case heard.
Trump and his advisers have complained bitterly about that system, arguing that it can reward fabricated or unfounded claims of vulnerability.
He has made no distinction between people flouting immigration laws and those fleeing violence and persecution, portraying the entire caravan group as lawbreakers.
“To those in the Caravan, turnaround, we are not letting people into the United States illegally,” the president wrote Thursday on Twitter. “Go back to your Country and if you want, apply for citizenship like millions of others are doing!”
Trump is weighing the new measures as he prepares to order 800 to 1,000 U.S. Army troops to help secure the southern border, Defense Department officials said Thursday.
Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, was expected to sign papers in the coming days to send the troops. They will include engineers to help with the construction of tents and fencing, doctors for medical support, and potentially some personnel to operate drones along the border, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the deployment had not yet been finished.
Trump has made it clear in recent days that he is angry and frustrated about his administration’s inability to gain firmer control of the U.S. border with Mexico.
“I am bringing out the military for this National Emergency,” the president tweeted. “They will be stopped!”
It is not the first time that Trump has demanded that the military secure the southern border. In April, when another such caravan of migrants began making its way north through Mexico, he called for U.S. troops to step in, suggesting that he wanted active-duty armed troops to do what immigration authorities could not. Instead, after discussions with Mattis and others, Trump requested that hundreds of National Guard personnel be mobilized to serve in support roles.
This time, according to officials briefed on the discussions, Trump’s aides had been looking at sending many more troops — up to 10,000 — to aid in addressing the migrant flow, as they scrambled to satisfy a president demanding a muscular response. Mattis has been resistant to calls to involve the military in such endeavours.
Human rights and immigrant advocacy groups condemned the decision to use the military, calling Trump’s response to the caravan a callous and politically motivated attempt to instil fear in American voters by fabricating a sense of crisis in the run-up to the midterm elections.
“The approach of a caravan of migrants that includes refugees fleeing persecution and violence is not a crisis, but President Trump is yet again spreading hatred and fear, hoping to score political points by making Americans fear refugees,” said Mike Breen, the chief executive of Human Rights First, an advocacy group. “The president should not be using the military to further a partisan agenda.”
The military deployment is one element of a multifaceted effort that senior administration officials have been discussing privately for weeks to try to satisfy the president’s demand to do more to secure the border. Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, who has briefed Trump about the caravan as well as data showing a large uptick in the number of apprehensions at the border over the past year, has been leading the effort.