Here’s some background you need to know to understand the significance of the announcement the Trump administration just made:
• The Immigration and Nationality Act says that you can apply for asylum in the United States—which allows you to stay in the country and eventually become a citizen if you’re found to have a legitimate fear of being persecuted in the country you came from—“whether or not” you cross the border at a “designated port of entry.”
• The Trump administration doesn’t like that so many people from Central America have been applying for asylum in the United States—many of whom do so after simply walking across the border rather than going through a port of entry.
• The Immigration and Nationality Act also says that the president can suspend particular classes of “aliens” if he finds that their entry “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” This is the broad loophole that the administration eventually used to get the Supreme Court to uphold a modified version of its infamous ban on travelers from several majority-Muslim countries.
What Thursday’s announcement says is that the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security have decided that the president is allowed under the INA to suspend the eligibility for asylum of the class of “aliens” that consists of people who cross the border outside a port of entry. The idea, it seems, is to argue that the number of unauthorized border crossings has become detrimental to the United States’ national interests, thus triggering the president’s powers. Per previous reporting, it seems that individuals who are barred from receiving asylum by this move will still be given the option of seeking “withholding of removal,” a status under which they are allowed to stay legally in the U.S. but do not have a path to citizenship.
In any case, the ACLU has already said it will challenge the new policy in court. This one’s just getting started.