Trump wants to charge fees for asylum; activists say Statue of Liberty "is not a toll booth"

Trump wants to charge an entry fee to people who can't afford it, in another blatant ploy to break the system

Published April 30, 2019 5:45PM (EDT)

 (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

In a decision immediately attacked by immigrants' rights activists and humanitarian groups, President Trump has ordered major changes to how the United States handles asylum cases. In a White House memorandum signed Monday night, Trump has demanded that immigration officials charge fees to migrants who apply for asylum on political or humanitarian grounds.

Trump said the directive would "strengthen asylum procedures to safeguard our system against rampant abuse of our asylum process." It is not clear how much applicants might be forced to pay or how many families fleeing poverty — clearly a large proportion of the total — could afford such a payment.

Advocacy group Voto Latino responded by tweet: "Once again, he's hell bent on persecuting the most vulnerable and gives access to lifesaving refuge only to those who can afford it."

Trump's memo also calls for tightening asylum restrictions by prohibiting migrants who cross the border illegally from obtaining a work permit until they have been issued relief or protection from removal, and instructs courts to adjudicate all asylum applications within 180 days of filing "absent exceptional circumstances." This would involve a major change to the existing process, since claims routinely take at least six months, often much longer, to work their way through the overloaded immigration court system.

"Our country is not a Trump hotel," Voto Latino responded in a subsequent tweet. "It does not 'fill up,' and you do not have to pay a fee to enter and remain. The Statue of Liberty is not a toll booth."

Trump, in his memo, ordered Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan to propose regulations within 90 days that would change how asylum cases are handled.

These changes are only the Trump administration's most recent attempt to crack down on the surge of migrant families arriving at the nation's southern border that has overwhelmed the government's resources. The border crisis also signals trouble for Trump as he tries to follow through on his repeated promises to crack down on illegal immigration  ahead of his 2020 re-election campaign.

Government shelters holding migrants are at capacity, and conditions at those facilities have been exacerbated both because of a spike in illegal border crossings and the Trump administration's aggressive efforts to arrest and detain undocumented immigrants throughout the country. This includes the administration's — attempts to overturn a policy the president derides as "catch and release," under which undocumented immigrants are released from detention into the general population while waiting for their cases to proceed in the courts. More than 50,000 migrants are currently being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the highest number in the agency's brief history.

"If the Democrats don't give us the votes to change our weak, ineffective and dangerous Immigration Laws, we must fight hard for these votes in the 2020 Election!" the president tweeted Monday night after the White House published his order.

Over the past two years the Trump administration has tried various approaches meant to deter illegal border crossings. All of them so far have been unsuccessful.

More than 103,000 migrants attempted to cross the country's southwestern border in March, the highest level in more than a decade. This has made it impractical for the government to detain all migrants and impossible for their asylum claims to be processed expeditiously. Adults who arrive with children are typically assigned a court date and are released from detention into the general population while waiting for their cases to proceed.

In recent weeks Trump has expressed mounting frustration with the asylum system, repeatedly claiming that existing laws protecting migrants from persecution endanger Americans.

On a trip to the Mexican border earlier in April, Trump expressed what he thought the nation's policy should be. "Whether it's asylum, whether it's anything you want — it's illegal immigration — can't take you anymore," he said. "We can't take you. Our country is full. Our area's full. The sector is full — can't take you anymore. I'm sorry — can't happen, so turn around."

By Shira Tarlo

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