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Biden administration proposes tougher restrictions on asylum at U.S.-Mexico border

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Biden administration is moving forward with tougher restrictions on asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. A proposed rule published today would make it harder for migrants to get asylum if they cross the border into the U.S. illegally after passing through Mexico or any other country without seeking protection. Critics compare the rule to a similar effort by the Trump administration, and they are vowing to fight it. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration for NPR and joins us now. Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So how would this proposed regulation work? Like, walk us through it.

ROSE: Sure. The rule says migrants would be presumed to be ineligible for asylum if they passed through a third country - for example, Mexico - without seeking protection there and then cross into the U.S. illegally. And that's a big departure from current policy, which says you simply have to be on U.S. soil to seek asylum.

CHANG: Exactly. So why is the Biden administration proposing this rule?

ROSE: Well, migrant apprehensions have been at record levels for the last two years. And the reality is that there's political pressure to do something about that, although the Biden administration denies that that's the motivation here. On a call with reporters, senior officials said they want to deter migrants from crossing the border illegally and encourage them to use legal pathways instead - a combination of carrots and sticks, in other words. On the call today, one official described this rule as an emergency measure for what they anticipate will be a temporary surge - their word - in migration when the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42 are lifted. For years now, immigration officials have been leaning heavily on those restrictions in order to quickly expel migrants and to manage the border, really. Biden officials seem to be looking at this rule almost as a kind of succession plan for when Title 42 goes away.

CHANG: Well, it sounds like immigrant advocates are not thrilled about this. What are they saying?

ROSE: Yeah. Horrific, shameful are a couple of the reactions today that stood out. Advocates say the Biden administration is breaking its promise to restore asylum protections at the U.S.-Mexico border. And they argue this proposed rule closely mirrors a Trump administration policy. The Trump version would have been a near-total ban on migrants seeking asylum after passing through another country with very few exceptions. Several courts have found that rule unlawful, and immigrant advocates have made no secret that they will go to court and try to block this rule, too, if it comes to that. Advocates argue there are just very limited asylum options in Mexico or in Central America, so that really is not a viable option for many migrants.

CHANG: Well, how is the Biden administration responding to all of these points brought by advocates?

ROSE: Well, they argue this rule is different from the Trump version because it's not intended to cut off asylum completely but instead to direct asylum seekers into these new and existing legal pathways. For example, the Biden administration is emphasizing this new system for some migrants from four countries - Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela - who can get temporary permission to live and work in the U.S. legally if they have a financial sponsor and meet other requirements. Immigration authorities also want to encourage migrants from other places to use a new app that they are calling CBP One to schedule their appointments at official ports of entry to seek asylum. And finally, the Biden administration says this new rule includes some exceptions for vulnerable migrants, which they argue is a key difference from the Trump-era policy and why they think this rule could survive in court.

CHANG: What's the timing of all this, Joel? Like, when with this new asylum rule actually take effect?

ROSE: The plan is that it will take effect when the Title 42 restrictions lift. The administration is proceeding as if that will happen when the COVID public health emergency ends. That's currently set for May 11. Of course, there could be lawsuits or other surprises, as we have seen several times before with Title 42. But the Biden administration wants to have these rules ready to go quickly. There's a 30-day public comment period, and then they're going to publish a final rule.

CHANG: That is NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you, Joel.

ROSE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.