Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday promised members of the illegal immigrant caravan still making its way to the U.S. border that they could face criminal charges if they jump the border despite all the warnings.
The migrants insist they are refugees seeking asylum from specific oppression at home, not rank-and-file illegal immigrants trying to reunite with family or get jobs or a better life in the U.S. They said they’ll make their case.
But Mr. Nielsen said if they are seeking a safe place away from their Central American homes they would stop in Mexico, where they are currently traveling, and where authorities are able to provide asylum.
“If you enter the United States illegally, let me be clear: you have broken the law. And we will enforce the law through prosecution of illegal border crossers,” she said.
Her announcement came hours after President Trump said he’d ordered her to refuse entry to the caravan.
“It is a disgrace. We are the only Country in the World so naive!” the president said on Twitter.
Ms. Nielsen didn’t say she would stop the caravan, but did say they will use the tools they are allowed under U.S. law, such as detaining people while their asylum claims are pending, to try to make sure people aren’t taking advantage of the system.
She also said and the Justice Department are sending personnel to the border so that those who do attempt to claim asylum can have quick hearings and be deported, if they don’t qualify.
Asylum has turned into an Achilles heel of the immigration system, with many migrants having learned how to game the system, lodging claims when they are caught at the border. The claims alone often-times buy them years of tentative legal status in the U.S. while their claims wait court hearings.
The caravan of Central Americans — chiefly mostly Hondurans — has been snaking toward the U.S. for nearly a month, with perhaps 1,500 people having mustered down at the southern border of Mexico before Easter.
Hundreds who were originally part of the caravan have dropped out, either asking to stay in Mexico or in the case of several hundred, having been deported by that country.
But the remainder — organizers claim some 600 are still part of the caravan — say they’re determined to make the U.S.
“People have a legal right, under U.S. law and international agreements signed by the U.S., to seek asylum in the U.S.A.,” said Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the group behind the caravan.
“Trump has railed against the caravan, but migrants have the right to request asylum in the U.S. and should not be turned away buy border officials unless they fail to pass initial security screenings,” the group said.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that will process the applications, is woefully behind on its statistics, but as of seven months ago there were nearly 300,000 people pending for asylum decisions.
That backlog grew by nearly 100,000 cases over the previous year, as analysts said more migrants figured out the “magic words” they had to say to get on the asylum track.
Ms. Nielsen, in a statement Monday, demanded Congress change laws to crack down on those “loopholes.”
Immigrant-rights advocates, though, bristle at the term loophole, saying the law is in place for humanitarian protection reasons and rotten conditions in countries like Honduras are creating legitimate refugees.
In order to claim asylum, people are supposed to prove they were targeted for persecution because of their membership in a particular class, such as their race, their sex or their religion. Experts say those definitions have been stretched, however, so women who have suffered through an abusive spouse can sometimes ruled to have been persecuted. Gang violence endemic to the region has also been used to justify asylum claims, creating a massive pool of potential claimants.
Indeed, a report by a Jesuit organization working in Honduras earlier this month found nearly half of those surveyed said they or someone they know is considering emigrating, and the overwhelming reason was to escape the dreariness of their home or to reunify with family.
Less than one in five say they would be fleeing violence. Indeed, the total saying violence is pushing them out of their home country has dropped 33 percent over the last few years.
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