President Trump said Thursday he intends to take executive action next week to end the “abuse” of the U.S. asylum system, a plan that could include “massive tent cities” at the southern border aimed at holding migrants indefinitely and making it more difficult for them to remain in the country.
But Trump offered few other details during remarks at the White House, where he reiterated unsubstantiated claims he has made in recent weeks that a caravan of migrants from Central America, traveling north through Mexico by foot, represents an urgent national security threat. He characterized the group, which includes many families with children, as dangerous and akin to an “invasion.”
The president’s remarks, carried live on cable news, came just days before Tuesday’s midterm elections, the latest bid by Trump to make immigration the top campaign issue.
Trump said the emergency steps he plans to take would protect the United States against what he characterized as rampant fraud that threatens to overwhelm the nation’s immigration system.
The president offered no legal rationale for his plan, and he brushed off questions about the legality of some of the methods he suggested could be employed, such as detaining families indefinitely or refusing migrants a hearing in immigration court.
Such moves would likely trigger legal challenges from civil rights groups.
A lawsuit filed Thursday in D.C. federal court, on behalf of six Honduran citizens, argues that the president’s response to the caravan violates the rights of asylum seekers by aiming to block them from entry, or else indefinitely detaining them under unsuitable conditions should they arrive.
Trump also suggested the U.S. military at the border could fire on members of the caravan if the migrants throw rocks at soldiers.
Attorneys at the White House, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have struggled in recent weeks to make the president’s sweeping demands to suspend humanitarian protections comport with U.S. laws that protect the right to seek refuge on U.S. soil, regardless of how an asylum seeker arrives.
“These illegal caravans will not be allowed into the United States,” Trump said. “They should turn back now. They’re wasting their time.”
In a sign that the administration is moving to carry out Trump’s orders, DHS has asked the Pentagon to provide up to 8,000 family detention beds at two sites, an administration official confirmed to The Washington Post on Thursday.
The president and his Republican allies have expressed confidence that Trump’s hard-line immigration message will motivate his conservative base as Republicans try to maintain control of Congress. Democrats have accused the president of fanning public fears over a group of migrant families that has dwindled and remains 800 miles from the United States.
“The president’s speech was a political stunt aimed at whipping up fear and xenophobia just days before the election,” Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement.
Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said Trump’s lack of policy details showed he was “trying to inflame his base in the final run-up to the midterms.”
Trump’s vow of a new executive order came after he authorized the deployment of more than 7,000 troops to assist in security operations at the U.S.-Mexico border, the largest peacetime deployment of active-duty troops to the border in nearly a century.
In his remarks, Trump praised the troops, which the Pentagon said would act in support roles to assist U.S. Border Patrol agents, who have the legal authority to make arrests.
Trump claimed that Mexican soldiers were “hurt badly” during clashes with a second group of migrants at the Guatemala border last Sunday. “These are tough people. In many cases, you have young men, strong men,” Trump said.
But the Mexican forces were federal police, not military, and there were no reports of serious injuries. Asked if the U.S. military would use lethal force, Trump suggested that the troops would be compelled to respond to violent confrontations.
“They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back,” Trump said. “We’re going to consider — and I told them consider it a rifle.”
A Pentagon spokesman declined to specify how members of the military would react under the scenario laid out by Trump.
“We will not discuss hypothetical situations or specific measures within our rules on the use of force, but our forces are trained professionals who always have the inherent right of self-defense,” said Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a spokesman for the Pentagon. “I would also emphasize that our forces are in support of DHS/CBP, who are performing law enforcement activities.”
News of Trump’s comments had reached the caravan by Thursday night in Matias Romero Avendano in Mexico, where the migrants were camped in a soggy sports field on the edge of town.
“They won’t shoot because we’re not criminals,” said Erik Miranda, 39. He said he had lived in the United States for 15 years and he’d been deported twice despite asking for asylum. “How horrible,” said Daniela Carbajal, 27, when told of Trump’s threat. “I’m not justifying throwing rocks but remember: we have children among us.”
Under the Refugee Act of 1980, migrants who present themselves at U.S. ports of entry or reach American soil and state a fear of persecution in their home countries are entitled to a “credible fear” screening. That review is typically done by a U.S. asylum officer to determine whether the applicant should be referred to an immigration judge.
If approved by the asylum officer, applicants are typically released in the United States while waiting for a hearing, which could take a year or longer because immigration courts have a backlog of more than 750,000 cases.
Trump said that large numbers of migrants are being coached by immigration lawyers to make false asylum claims and that more Central American families are making the journey because U.S. law prevents the federal government from detaining children for lengthy periods. The number of Central America families seeking asylum reached record levels this year.
The process, Trump asserted, “makes a mockery of our immigration system.”
Legal analysts cast doubt on the legality of draft plans, circulated within the Trump administration, that would issue blanket denials of asylum to large groups of immigrants, in particular those who do not come to the country through official ports of entry.
“He can’t by executive fiat repeal an act of Congress or a constitutional amendment,” said Deborah Anker, a Harvard Law School professor. “He has to ask for new legislation.”
Trump said the migrants in the caravan are not “legitimate” asylum seekers, arguing the law should not be used to accommodate people fleeing poverty and is intended for those escaping religious and political persecution.
The administration already has been trying to curtail asylum claims.
In recent months, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have been turning away thousands of asylum seekers before they can make a claim, telling them to return later, typically citing capacity limits. The practice, known as “metering,” is being challenged in federal court.
The caravan, a fluid and loosely organized group, numbered more than 7,000 early last week, according to the United Nations, but more recent estimates by the Mexican government put the figure at about half that. Other, smaller collections of migrants also have been traveling north and attempting to join the main group.
Mexican authorities say more than 2,000 migrants have accepted their offer to seek asylum there and remain in southern Mexico.
If thousands in the caravan do manage to reach the U.S. border and find severe restrictions on their ability to request asylum at legal crossings, it could significantly increase the possibility that they would attempt to swim or float across the Rio Grande, even with thousands of Border Patrol agents and U.S. soldiers waiting for them on the other side, experts warned.
It is not clear how they would be handled, but Trump has vowed not to release them into the United States while awaiting a court hearing — even though U.S. courts have limited the government’s ability to hold children in immigration jails for longer than 20 days.
“We’re putting up massive cities of tents,” Trump said Thursday. “You don’t have to release.”
Maria Sacchetti, Seung Min Kim, Paul Sonne and Isaac Stanley-Becker in Washington and Michael Miller in Matias Romero Avendano, Mexico, contributed to this report.