Los Angeles — Ken Cuccinelli, one of President Trump's top immigration officials, previewed on Friday an expansion of a series of controversial policies the administration has implemented to severely restrict access to America's asylum system at the southern border and deter U.S.-bound migrants.
Cuccinelli, an immigration hard-liner and the second-highest ranking official at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), revealed that in the coming weeks, the Trump administration will expand programs designed to fast-track the deportation of asylum-seekers. It will also look to implement agreements with Central American countries that allow the U.S. to reroute migrants who express fear of persecution at the southern border to the region.
"The Trump administration is clearly attempting to scale up its crackdown on asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border," Jessica Bolter, an immigration expert at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute, told CBS News.
The announcements came as Guatemalan and Mexican authorities have made concerted efforts to hinder the passage of the first U.S.-bound caravan of migrants of the year. On a call with reporters Friday afternoon, Cuccinelli was effusive in his praise for the governments of both countries, saying officials there, with the advice of DHS officials deployed in the region, have stopped, apprehended and deported "hundreds" of migrants trekking north.
Migrants, mainly from Central America and marching in a caravan, hold forms to apply for asylum near Frontera Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico. ANDRES MARTINEZ CASARES / REUTERS
Along with the aggressive immigration enforcement by Mexico and Guatemala, Cuccinelli said the border policies his department has overseen have been effective in stemming the flow of migration from Central America and fueling seven consecutive months of lower border apprehensions since a 13-year high last May. Nevertheless, Cuccinelli said U.S. officials are still confronting a "crisis" at the southern border, suggesting that the expansion of restrictive asylum policies is warranted.
In two weeks, Cuccinelli said, U.S. officials expect to expand two programs designed to expedite the deportation of asylum-seekers along the entire southern border. One of the policies, known as PACR, is for non-Mexican migrants who are generally rendered ineligible for asylum under the administration's sweeping third country transit asylum restriction, while the other, called HARP, is a similar policy for Mexican asylum-seekers.
The programs have drawn criticism and legal challenges from advocates. Migrants subject to these policies have very limited access to counsel and must try to fight their deportation and pass fear of persecution interviews with heightened standards in a matter of days, while detained in secure Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities.
Bolter called expansion of these policies the "bigger deal" in Cuccinelli's announcements. "Implementing the transit country asylum ban across the border through PACR will rapidly peel off any last chance the migrants had to access the U.S. asylum system from the southwest border," she said.
As early as next week, Cuccinelli added, the U.S. could start implementing its "Asylum Cooperative Agreement" with Honduras. A team of U.S. officials will be there to facilitate the implementation, he said. The agreement, one of three the U.S. forged last year with all countries in Central America's Northern Triangle, allows the U.S. to deny certain asylum-seekers access to America's asylum system at the southern border and require them to choose between seeking protection in the receiving country or returning home.
So far, only the deal with Guatemala has been implemented, with the U.S. deporting roughly 300 asylum-seekers from Honduras and El Salvador there, including dozens of families and children, according to the Guatemalan government's migration institute. Cuccinelli on Friday confirmed that DHS has not moved forward with controversial plans to send Mexican asylum-seekers to Guatemala, saying the new government in Guatemala City is still getting on its feet.
Honduras' U.S.-aligned conservative government has said it could receive asylum-seekers from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Brazil sent by the U.S.
Cuccinelli said plans to implement the "Asylum Cooperative Agreement" with El Salvador will start soon after the accord with Honduras takes effect. In a 60 Minutes report that aired last month, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele said his country did not have "asylum capacities" to accept asylum-seekers sent by the U.S.
During the call Friday, Cuccinelli also suggested there's a possibility that so-called extra-continental migrants — which could include asylum-seekers from Brazil, Venezuela and Africa who have journeyed to the U.S.-Mexico border in higher numbers in the past year — could be subject to the asylum agreements with the Central American governments.
Such a move would mean that the U.S. could send non-Spanish speaking migrants who seek asylum at America's southern border to Central America. DHS officials have had a more difficult time deterring these asylum-seekers since they are generally exempt from the department's main border policy, the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP.
Through MPP, also known as "Remain in Mexico," the U.S. has required more than 57,000 Latin American asylum-seekers to wait in often dangerous Mexican border cities for the duration of their U.S. immigration proceedings.
Advocates have strongly denounced the three asylum cooperative agreements, recently mounting the first legal challenge to try to block the regulation in place to enforce them. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras all have skeletal asylum systems and have seen hundreds of thousands of their own citizens journey north in the past two years because of the extreme poverty, chronic political instability and endemic violence in the region.
Bolter, the immigration expert, said the full implementation of all three asylum accords will likely have a significant deterrence effect.
"Even if they are not able to scale up much past the hundreds that been sent now to Guatemala, it is likely to have an effect in promoting the message that the U.S. asylum system is closed — and I think that is probably the bigger objective here," she said.