FOLLOW THE rules. That’s what people fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries and seeking asylum in the United States are being told by the Trump administration under its zero-tolerance immigration policy. Don’t cross the border anywhere other than at official ports of entry. If you do, your bid for asylum won’t be heard, you will be criminally prosecuted and, if you have children, they will be taken from you. But the real message being sent, judging by troubling reports of asylum seekers being turned away at legal border crossings, is that the administration has undertaken a drastic escalation of its efforts to limit immigration and discourage asylum seekers. No measure, it seems, is too extreme.
Getting the most attention, as it should, has been the separation of families that has resulted from the administration’s policy of prosecuting everyone (including asylum seekers) who crosses into the United States illegally. Previously, most illegal crossers were paroled while awaiting court proceedings, which allowed families to remain together. Hundreds of children have been taken from their parents, and the accounts of suffering have been heart-rending: toddlers crying themselves to sleep; mothers being falsely told their babies were being taken away only to be bathed; a father killing himself in a detention cell after his child was taken from him.
There also have been reports of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers turning back asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, who try to present themselves, as is their legal right, at El Paso and other legal crossings on the Mexican border. “I wanted to do everything legally, to ask for asylum in the proper way, but this is a setback I did not expect for us,” Justo Solval, a 25-year-old laborer who traveled with his 21-month-old son from Guatemala, told the New York Times of having to camp out for more than a week on the streets of Nogales.
Asylum seekers are not being told that they can’t apply for asylum, just that they have to wait because the port of entry is at capacity and unable to process claims. It’s “the immigration equivalent,” Robert Moore wrote in The Post, “of a ‘no vacancy’ light over the Rio Grande.” Advocates for asylum seekers are skeptical of those claims, pointing to a lack of data to back them up. We will take the agency at its word about stretched resources and the multiple missions of Customs and Border Protection. But that raises the critical question of why the administration implemented such a drastic policy change affecting asylum seekers — requiring them to present themselves only at official entry points — with so little regard for the consequences. Why, for example, aren’t there plans to set up temporary processing facilities, as was done during a surge in asylum requests during the Obama administration?
The answer is obvious. Just as the Trump administration doesn’t think twice about trampling on American values by separating children from parents, it doesn’t mind turning its back on the country’s proud tradition of offering harbor to the persecuted.