MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The Trump administration is taking new steps to discourage Central Americans from seeking asylum in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has threatened, beginning this past weekend, to deport thousands of recently arrived migrants. And then today, the administration announced a new rule. It would require migrants to first apply for asylum in a country they pass through on their way north to the U.S. border.
NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He's in the studio now. And, Joel, let me take these one at a time. First, those ICE raids - did they happen? What happened?
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, according to the president, they were, quote, "very successful." Here's what Trump told reporters today.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Many, many were taken out on Sunday. You just didn't know about it. In fact, I went to - I spoke to the head of ICE. I spoke to a couple of people. We had many people - it was a very successful day. But you didn't see a lot of it.
ROSE: That came as a bit of a surprise, though, to immigrant rights advocates because as far as they can tell, the mass arrests that have been promised by the president have not actually materialized. These advocates have documented only a handful of arrests over the weekend. And ICE isn't talking.
KELLY: I was about to say, what does ICE say? OK.
ROSE: So far, nothing. Nonetheless, immigrant communities are still on guard. They worry that the administration is going to make good on this threat to deport thousands of migrant families who have recently arrived and already received their final removal orders from a judge because the administration wants to send a message back to Central America that it is willing to crack down on migrants who lose their asylum cases.
KELLY: OK. So that's a kind of watch-this-space category. Meanwhile, this new rule on asylum announced today. Is this the Safe Third Country rule we've talked about before?
ROSE: It is and it isn't. It's a sweeping new rule that, as you said at the top, would require migrants to apply for asylum in a country that they're traveling through on the way to reach the U.S, but unlike a safe third country agreement, that country doesn't have to actually sign on.
For example, if you're traveling from Guatemala, you would first have to apply in Mexico on your way to the U.S. In practice, advocates say that this would block effectively all asylum claims from Central American migrants or at least most of them because Mexico's asylum system is small and slow.
And immigrant advocates worry that a lot of people would just give up and go home. But that seems to be precisely what the Department of Homeland Security wants. In a statement, the acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, says this rule will do away with, quote, "a major pull factor," unquote.
The administration has been arguing for months now that migrants, under the false impression that they're going to get asylum here, that that's why they're coming because they're under this false impression. And when they don't get asylum, they frequently disappear into the U.S.
KELLY: Joel, is this legal? Can the administration just say, no, you got to apply for asylum somewhere before you get to us?
ROSE: Well, the administration really wanted Congress to tighten up the asylum law. That has not happened. So the administration is rewriting it on its own. Critics say this entire maneuver is blatantly illegal, that U.S. law states clearly that migrants can ask for asylum in the U.S. no matter how they got here. Here's Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaking today in Florida.
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DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: The president is not a monarch or a dictator. He can't just decree that he's going to change standards without it being passed by Congress in legislation.
ROSE: The ACLU says it will challenge this new rule in court swiftly - their word. I think likely that means tomorrow, when the new rule is set to take effect.
KELLY: And what does that mean for this new rule to take effect? I mean, practically speaking, does the administration just start returning people showing up at the U.S. southern border asking for asylum saying, no, you got to go back to Mexico?
ROSE: It's a huge question. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have not said and did not respond to requests for comment. We know that Mexico, in particular, has been reluctant to take in these migrants. The U.S. has been pressuring Mexico and Guatemala to sign what's known as a safe third country agreement, as you mentioned. I spoke to Michelle Brane with the Women's Refugee Commission.
MICHELLE BRANE: That both of those countries have not agreed despite enormous pressure from the United States and threats from the United States does say something. It says that they themselves know that they are not safe places.
ROSE: And added it would be a human rights disaster to just return these vulnerable people to these countries.
KELLY: NPR's Joel Rose.
Thank you very much.
ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.