The Trump administration proposed new regulations Wednesday that would deny asylum protections to immigrants with criminal convictions — including some low-level offenses and misdemeanors — measures that would raise new legal barriers to those seeking refuge in the United States.
The proposed change from the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security would disqualify asylum applicants found guilty of serious offenses such as driving while intoxicated and domestic battery, as well as lesser violations such as the use of false documents and reentering the United States illegally.
The Trump administration has made a series of moves in recent months to make it significantly more difficult for immigrants to qualify for humanitarian protection in the United States, measures the government says are necessary to cope with a record influx of Central American children and families who have overwhelmed U.S. courts with flimsy or false claims.
If implemented after a public comment period, the new regulation would help the government sort through an immigration court backlog that exceeds 1 million pending cases, according to the Justice Department.
“Upon finalization of the rulemaking process, the departments will be able to devote more resources to the adjudication of asylum cases filed by noncriminal aliens,” the department said in a statement.
Immigrants with pending asylum claims include those who recently arrived at the border and others who have applied for protections as a way to halt deportation to their home countries, where they say they fear for their lives. Central America’s Northern Triangle nations — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — have some of the highest murder rates in the world.
The Trump administration in recent months also has moved to deny asylum protections to border-crossers who did not seek protection in other nations while traveling to the United States. And the United States has been removing some asylum-seekers who arrive at the U.S. southern border, flying them to Guatemala and requiring them to apply for shelter there instead.
Current U.S. law already disqualifies major criminal offenders from obtaining asylum protection in the United States, but the new proposal would add several additional categories of mandatory bars.
They would include any felony conviction at the federal or state level, and offenses such as driving while intoxicated, domestic violence — even when no conviction results — and any “federal, state, tribal, or local crime involving criminal street gang activity.”
Possession of a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia also would be grounds for disqualification, with the exception of those who have a single offense involving a small amount of marijuana.
Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said she believes the changes would be “more symbolic than impactful,” affecting a relatively small number of applicants, because criminal convictions are already derogatory factors for those seeking U.S. asylum.
“I don’t believe it will make a huge dent in the ultimate number of asylum grants,” she said, referring to approvals.
Pierce said the new regulations are consistent with the administration’s broader attempt to tighten the asylum system — “and how thoughtfully and thoroughly they go about accomplishing their goals on immigration.”
The proposal follows two rulings issued by Attorney General William Barr in October that expanded the government’s powers to deport immigrants with criminal violations.
One allows the government to deny legal status to immigrants with two or more convictions for driving under the influence on the basis that they lack “good moral character.” The other decision renders immigrants eligible for deportation even when their prior criminal convictions have been expunged by state and local courts.