For the Trump administration’s critics, it’s just the latest manifestation of the extreme anti-immigrant sentiment that has run amuck in the White House and the Department of Justice. Attorney General William Barr’s decision to deny bond to many asylum seekers held in custody, overturning a policy that had been in place for 14 years, sounds cruel as well as unfair. Lawyers and immigration activists are howling, saying the ruling will prevent judges from considering the merits of each bond motion individually and lead to the indefinite imprisonment of many immigrants who have a legitimate fear of harm or persecution in their home countries and ought to be allowed to stay in the United States.
But the hysteria over Barr’s move, which advocates hope will reach the level of furor that the outcry over family separation did, is unwarranted. Once you get beyond the headlines, it’s clear that what Barr is doing is not only legal and appropriate but also necessary.
The Border Patrol’s resources have been stretched to the limit as large numbers of migrants from Central America have been crossing the southern border. Some of these individuals request asylum at a port of entry, which is the preferred process. But others enter the country illegally and claim asylum only when they are caught.
Under the current asylum system, anyone who makes such a claim could be immediately paroled into the United States to await the adjudication of his or her case by federal immigration courts. Many of those who do so fade into the shadows instead of showing up to court, knowing they cannot show they are actually eligible for asylum in the U.S. While liberals have blasted Trump for using the phrase “catch and release” to depict the process by which Central American asylum seekers have been treated after crossing the border, it accurately describes a process that is adding to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already here.
One might sympathize with the plight of people coming from poverty-stricken countries hoping for a fresh start in America, and the law gives illegal immigrants the right to request asylum from within the country. But the fact that so many are using frivolous asylum requests as a get-out-of-jail-free card after they get caught breaking the law is both overwhelming the system and making a mockery of the intent of our asylum policies.
That’s where Barr’s order, which the Justice Department is clearly hoping will act to deter faux asylum seekers from entering the United States, comes in. The new guidelines are targeted specifically at those who are taking advantage of the system: Those caught crossing illegally into the United States will be held until the courts can decide whether they may stay, rather than being released into the country. It will not affect those who arrived at a port of entry and asked for asylum in a manner befitting persons who believe they have a valid claim. Nor will it affect families or unaccompanied children, putting the lie to the assertion that this measure is analogous to the family-separation fiasco.
This may have only a marginal impact on the flow of illegal immigrants into the country and might contribute to the problem of overcrowded detention facilities. But the only way to begin to halt this mockery of the asylum process is to make at least some of the perpetrators pay a price for violating the law. Barr’s decision doesn’t make up for Congress’s failure to act on this crisis, but it’s a credible start.