Skip to Content

Trump Administration’s Latest “Safe Third-Country” Asylum Rule Unlikely to Solve Crisis at Southern Border

13 Aug

The Trump Administration published another new hardline asylum rule, making it the administration’s third attempt to restrict (mostly) Central American asylum claims and stem the flow of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico Border. Federal courts blocked the administration’s earlier attempt to impose an asylum ban on anyone who entered the United States at points not officially designated to receive asylum seekers, but they upheld the “remain in Mexico” policy that requires asylum-seekers who are waiting for a U.S. court date to do so in Mexico.

This new rule, which was published on July 16, 2019 and took effect immediately, requires asylum-seekers who pass through a third country en route to the United States to first apply for refugee status in that country rather than at the U.S. border, and it provides very limited exceptions.

When the rule was published, the United States only had a safe third-country agreement with Canada; however, on July 26, the United States and Guatemala entered into such an agreement. This agreement and the administration’s new “safe third-country” rule would effectively disqualify Hondurans and Salvadorans from applying for asylum in the United States as they typically pass through both Guatemala and Mexico before reaching this country.

While this rule has been blocked for the time being by a U.S. District Court Judge in California, if it is ever implemented, it will not solve the crisis at the southern border. First, Customs and Border Protection has reported the apprehension of over 205,000 parents and children and another 44,000 single adults who have fled Guatemala during the past nine months. Guatemala is plagued with the same gang-, organized crime-, and gender-based violence issues as Honduras and El Salvador and remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The United States would need a safe third-country agreement with Mexico to disqualify Guatemalan nationals from asylum, which appears unlikely. The same day that the new rule was announced, the Mexican Foreign Minister said that “Mexico does not agree with measures that limit asylum and refugee status for those who fear for their lives or safety, and who fear persecution in their country of origin.” Second, without addressing the reasons why people are fleeing their homes, they will continue to seek refuge in the United States but may be encouraged to avoid detection with immigration officials or to stay in the United States without authorization rather than applying for asylum if they know their claims will be rejected.

This rule will likely prove to be just a band-aid and not the deterrent the administration is desperately seeking. Solving the crisis at the southern border will require strategic reforms to our asylum system, which have been proposed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Migration Policy Institute, and investing resources to improve conditions in Central America.