Washington, DC - Vowing to sue, immigrant rights groups have called a new Trump administration rule that would prevent Central Americans from claiming political asylum in the United States a flagrant attempt to dismantle the country's asylum system.
According to the new rule, announced on Monday and slated to go into effect on Tuesday, asylum seekers who pass through other countries on their way to the US will no longer be eligible for asylum. The rule applies not only to adult asylum seekers, but unaccompanied minors as well.
"Every day, we're seeing a new emergency from the Trump administration," said Zenen Jaimes Perez, the advocacy and communications director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. "People are not connecting the dots between every one of these actions and the administration's wider goal of dismantling asylum from its root."
The only exceptions to the new rule are victims of human trafficking, cases in which asylum seekers passed through countries that are not signatories of the major international treaties concerning the treatment of refugees or cases in which an individual first sought asylum in another country and failed to obtain it.
"This rule will decrease forum shopping by economic migrants and those who seek to exploit our asylum system to obtain entry to the United States," said US Attorney General William Barr in a statement.
The narrow exceptions aside, the rule would essentially end asylum requests from Central American migrants, a long-term goal of the administration of President Donald Trump.
In 2018, US judges blocked attempts by the Trump administration to end asylum for individuals fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence, as well as those who entered the US between official ports of entry in order to petition for asylum.
The Trump administration redoubled its efforts last winter with a "Remain in Mexico" plan that confines Central Americans who requested asylum in the US to await the result of their petition in Mexico. Approximately 10,000 Central American migrants are currently waiting for the outcomes of their asylum applications in Mexican border towns.
And in April, Trump signed a memorandum, giving US federal agencies 90 days to implement new rules for asylum seekers, including requiring them to pay an application fee.
Groups vow to sue
Rights groups have vowed to challenge the latest rule in the courts.
"The Trump administration is trying to unilaterally reverse our country's legal and moral commitment to protect those fleeing danger. This new rule is patently unlawful and we will sue swiftly," said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants' Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement on Monday.
"This policy is in direct conflict with US refugee law, which requires that asylum seekers can only be firmly resettled in a third country if there's an actual offer or receipt of permanent status," says Adina Appelbaum, programme director of the Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition's federal courts and appellate impact litigation project.
"I believe there would be very strong [legal] arguments to challenge this policy," she told Al Jazeera. "It is in direct conflict with existing immigration law, that it has not gone through proper notice and comment procedures, that the policy is arbitrary and that it is in violation of our international obligations under the Refugee Convention."
One significant reason so many Central American migrants come to the US to demand asylum is that they already have social networks that can support them as they wait for their claim to be accepted. By removing protections from asylum seekers from Central America, the Trump administration risks stripping them of any support whatsoever as they seek relief outside of their home country said Joan Hodges-Wu, the founder of the Asylum Seeker Assistance Project.
Putting further pressure on asylum seekers and those that might otherwise support them only creates more risks for them as they try to escape poverty and violence, Hodges-Wu told Al Jazeera.
"Asylum seekers are entirely dependent on informal networks for housing, food, transportation, and other necessities until they receive work authorisation; without these networks, asylum seekers are much more likely to experience extreme poverty, continued victimisation, and profound social isolation in the US," she said.
Safe third country agreements?
It's unclear whether the countries the Trump administration expects migrants to seek asylum in are willing or able to provide relief in the US's stead.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard rejected Trump's plan, saying Mexico "does not agree with measures that limit asylum or refuge for those that fear for their lives in their country of origin".
Speaking to reporters on Monday, he added that his country "will not enter any safe third country negotiations without express authorisation of Congress".
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales cancelled a Monday meeting in which he was expected to discuss a "safe third country agreement" with Trump in Washington, DC.
"The government of the republic reiterates that at no moment has it contemplated signing an agreement to convert Guatemala into a safe third country," the Guatemalan government said in a statement.
"Guatemala does not have an asylum system period at this moment," said Geoff Thale, the vice president for programmes at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a leading research and advocacy organisation for human rights in the Americas.
Moreover, he added, "the largest single nationality among Central Americans arriving at the US border applying for asylum is Guatemalans fleeing violence, insecurity, persecution. This is a proposal driven more by a US desire to discourage migration than any reasonable assessment of where it's safe for asylum seekers to go."
The only way to effectively stop people from migrating to the US is development, says George Escobar, Chief of Services at CASA, an organisation that advocates on behalf of low-income immigrants in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
"What we need is comprehensive investment and partnership in development in the long term to these Central American countries and with Mexico, together, creating programmes and development that will address the root causes of why folks are fleeing," he told Al Jazeera.