New asylum rules from the Trump administration put vulnerable people at risk and could further destabilize Central America, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services have said.
The rules would allow U.S. officials to screen asylum applicants to determine if they are eligible to apply for asylum in certain Central American countries. If so, they can be deported to those countries without their asylum application being heard in the United States, Reuters reports.
“Vulnerable individuals seeking protection and safety in the United States should be welcomed and given the chance to access the protection that our laws provide. If implemented, we fear that the asylum cooperation agreements would leave many helpless people, including families and children, unable to attain safety and freedom from violence and persecution,” the organizations said in a joint statement.
The statement was signed by both Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville of Washington, who serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration; and Sean Callahan, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ international relief agency.
Their statement responded to two notices published Nov. 18 in the Federal Register concerning the implementation of asylum cooperation agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Dorsonville and Callahan objected that the rules would allow the U.S. government to send asylum seekers to these three countries without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum in the U.S. The rules require the three countries’ governments to judge asylum claims and attempt to provide protection.
“The governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras do not have the resources nor the capacity to safely accept, process, and integrate asylees,” Dorsonville and Callahan said, citing the globally high rates of homicide in the region.
The agreements with the three countries have been signed but not yet finalized. There are “numerous concerns” with these agreements’ implementation, said the U.S. Catholic leaders, who added that the Catholic Church in Guatemala is among those voicing concern.
These agreements “do not address the root causes of forced migration and could further endanger the lives of people fleeing a region that continues to have some of the highest homicide rates in the world,” Dorsonville and Callahan said.
They placed the new rules in the context other policies, like the Migration Protection Protocols which allow U.S. officials to return undocumented migrants to Mexico pending adjudication of their claims. There is also a continued hold on humanitarian and development assistance to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The combination of all these rules and other Trump administration decisions, Dorsonville and Callahan said, “undermines U.S. moral leadership in protecting vulnerable populations and risks further destabilizing the region.”
“To preserve and uphold the sacredness and dignity of all human life, we cannot turn our back on families and individuals in desperate need of help,” they said. “In light of the Gospel, let us always remember we are invited to embrace the foreigner and to take care of this human person. Let us move ourselves from a culture of indifference to a Christian culture of solidarity. We can and must do more.”
Trump administration officials have previously argued that migrants who need asylum should seek protection in the first safe country where they can apply, given that many migrants pass through multiple countries before arriving at the U.S. border, Reuters reports. Critics argue that many of these countries are not truly safe and are not equipped to help migrants.
The new rules go even further - asylum seekers may be sent to any other countries where the U.S. has asylum agreements allowing this transportation, even if the asylum seekers did not first travel through the receiving country.
Migrants sent to a third country will have the chance to prove that they are “more likely than not” to be persecuted or tortured in the receiving country, but this could be a difficult task for many.
“If this rule fully goes into effect, virtually no one who arrived at the southern border would ever be allowed to ask for asylum in the United States,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, which supports migrants, told Reuters.
The Trump administration has created or tightened many restrictions for migrants and asylum seekers, but these have faced several legal challenges.
The so-called “Return to Mexico” policy has returned about 60,000 immigrants to Mexico while awaiting decisions on their asylum cases, CNN reports. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed this policy to proceed at present.
On Nov. 19 a federal judge in San Diego ruled that new restrictions on asylum did not apply to asylum-seeking migrants who were waiting the chance to make an official U.S. asylum request in Mexico border cities before mid-July, when the rules took effect.
In August of this year, the administration announced its intent to deny green cards and a path to citizenship to immigrants in the country legally who use public benefits.
The number of asylum claims has dramatically increased over the last decade, with very few prospective asylees being allowed to stay. In 2009, there were 35,811 people who applied for asylum in the United States, and 8,384 were granted. In 2018, that number had more than quadrupled to 162,060 claims, with 13,168 actually granted.