GIVEN THAT President Trump would like to exile members of Congress who strike him as a little too alien, it may not come as a surprise that he is prepared to take extraordinary steps to send actual foreign asylum seekers packing. Still, the administration caught most of the world by surprise with its sudden announcement Monday that it would shift decades of established procedure by barring protections for most people who cross the southern border.
The new rule, unveiled jointly by the Justice and Homeland Security departments to take effect Tuesday, aims directly at people fleeing the three countries — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — that are the source of most asylum seekers who have crossed into the United States in recent months. That spike in migration, and the burden it has imposed on U.S. Border Patrol officers and other agencies, was the main justification for the rule change cited by Attorney General William P. Barr.
It was telling that Mr. Barr made no serious attempt to provide legal justification for the new policy; it seems likely that no persuasive one exists. U.S. and international law are clear that refugees who enter the United States are entitled to apply for asylum here, regardless of their odds of success (which lately are less than 20 percent). The American Civil Liberties Union said it would file suit immediately to block the change. Already, courts have struck down the administration’s attempt to prohibit migrants from applying for asylum unless they cross the border at official ports of entry.
In Mr. Trump’s perfect world, asylum seekers and refugees would have no place in the United States, with the possible exception of Norwegians. That thinking explains why the administration has tried desperately to finalize agreements with Mexico and Guatemala that would force Salvadorans or Hondurans to apply for asylum in Guatemala, and Guatemalans to seek protections in Mexico. Both countries would thus function as protective screens for their vastly bigger and more powerful neighbor to the north; never mind that neither is plausibly very safe for migrants, nor that neither has the administrative or economic wherewithal to absorb a significant influx.
As it happens, a court in Guatemala last weekend blocked President Jimmy Morales from signing such a “safe third-country agreement” with the United States, days after word leaked there that he planned to do so this week in Washington. Undeterred, the Trump administration unveiled its policy a day later, effectively shunting the U.S. burden southward. (The decree makes exceptions for asylum seekers whose applications had been denied by a country through which they had traveled, as well as some trafficking victims.)
Rather than slamming the door, the United States would be wise to add processing capacity by hiring more immigration judges to swiftly adjudicate asylum claims; wait times currently are two years or more. But the administration cannot wish away this country’s long-standing commitment under law and tradition to provide shelter to those with legitimate fear of persecution in their home countries.