STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The United States says it is changing the way it handles people seeking asylum. To be precise, the U.S. will change where they stay. This change involves Central Americans and others arriving at the southern border. When they apply for asylum and they wait for the U.S. to consider their claim, they must wait in Mexico. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a reason for that change in our interview yesterday.
SEC OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: We think this will disincentivize folks who think that if they can make the transit through Mexico - a very difficult and arduous journey where terrible things often happen to these migrants - we think they will realize that they won't be able to stay in the United States and disappear into our country.
INSKEEP: NPR's John Burnett reports on what this means for people seeking refuge.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Every week almost 1,500 asylum applicants pass their initial interviews at the southern border and are allowed to pursue their cases in U.S. immigration courts. Now instead of being released to join friends or relatives already living in the U.S. while they wait, they will be sent back to Mexico. The new policy does not apply to children traveling without their parents or Mexicans seeking protection.
This dramatic change in policy is the latest attempt by the Trump administration to discourage asylum-seekers from flocking to the U.S.-Mexico border. Most are from Central America and say they're fleeing domestic abuse, criminal violence or poverty. The U.S. considers these fraudulent reasons for asylum and wants to discourage them.
Officials say migrants often don't show up for court. And in the end, 90 percent of their asylum claims are denied. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who's been under pressure from the president for not doing enough to control the border, had this to say at a congressional committee yesterday.
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SEC OF HOMELAND SECURITY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: We are taking lawful unilateral action to stop illegal entry now.
BURNETT: Whether it's lawful remains to be seen. The new plan is expected to be challenged in court. And in recent months, federal judges have blocked at least four other Trump initiatives on immigration. Immigrant advocates reacted with outrage at this latest move.
JACINTA MA: It sounds very administratively difficult, burdensome and chaotic.
BURNETT: That's Jacinta Ma with the National Immigration Forum. Homeland Security officials say they'll roll out the new plan in phases at ports of entry along the southwest border, and they're still ironing out the details. Critics already anticipate serious problems. How can attorneys in the U.S. get access to their clients in Mexico? How can they communicate if immigrants don't have phones or the Internet? How will asylum-seekers travel back and forth between the two countries for their hearings?
DHS officials say not to worry. Due process will be preserved. But with the chaos and poor planning that surrounded Trump's family separation policy last spring, some observers are plenty worried. Then there's the question, where will asylum-seekers stay in Mexico and will it be safe?
Last weekend, two Honduran teenagers with the migrant caravan in Tijuana were killed in an attempted robbery. Father Jose Guadalupe Valdez, known as Padre Pepe, runs a migrant shelter on the Mexican border. Last night he said by phone from Piedras Negras that he was housing 125 migrants waiting to ask for asylum, and he was nearly full.
JOSE GUADALUPE VALDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "If this comes to pass, we will not be able to support all the migrants who will be waiting here," he said. "Piedras Negras is small. They'll need to get jobs." As the new plan was rolled out in Washington, the foreign relations secretariat in Mexico City announced that it would temporarily allow asylum-seekers to stay in its territory.
Further, Mexico will give them humanitarian visas, work permits and permission to travel. What's in it for Mexico? Officials didn't say. But on Tuesday, the State Department announced a new hemispheric development strategy that includes nearly $5 billion in investment for Southern Mexico. John Burnett, NPR News.
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