President Trump on Monday ordered new restrictions on asylum seekers at the Mexican border — including application fees and work permit restraints — and directed that cases in the already clogged immigration courts be settled within 180 days.
In a memo sent to Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, and Attorney General William P. Barr, the president took another step to reshape asylum law, which is determined by Congress, from the White House.
The restrictions do not take effect immediately. Mr. Trump gave administration officials 90 days to draw up regulations that would carry out his orders. They would be among the first significant changes to asylum policy since Mr. McAleenan replaced Kirstjen Nielsen as head of homeland security and the president signaled he would take a tougher stance on the asylum seekers swamping the border.
The administration has already tried to restrict the number of migrants who can apply for asylum per day, who qualifies for asylum and where they must wait for a resolution — immigration policies that have been the subject of multiple federal court cases.
Carrying out the president’s orders will be an early test for Mr. McAleenan, who was named acting secretary this month.
“The purpose of this memorandum is to strengthen asylum procedures to safeguard our system against rampant abuse of our asylum process,” Mr. Trump said in the memo.
The memo did not make clear how the plans would be carried out in immigration courts. More than 800,000 cases are pending, with an average wait time of almost two years. The Trump administration added to that backlog when it directed immigration authorities to reopen thousands of nonviolent removal cases.
The memo specifically called for the authorities to set a fee for asylum seekers filing their claims and for their work permit applications.
Migrants who have entered or tried to enter the United States illegally would also be barred from receiving a work permit until their claims are adjudicated.
“There’s a reason that we give people work permits while they are waiting for asylum, so that they can support themselves and don’t have to be depending on government assistance during that time,” said Michelle Brané, the director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
Fewer migrants try to cross the border now than in the early 2000s. But the demographics have shifted: Most are now families from Central America rather than single Mexicans who could be quickly deported. The sheer number of families has overwhelmed the system, and because of rules that prohibit holding children in detention for more than 20 days, some families are released into communities along the border.
More than 103,000 migrants crossed the southwestern border in March without authorization, an increase from the more than 76,000 who crossed in February. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, is currently housing more than 50,000 migrants, one of the highest numbers on record, and about 5,000 more than the congressionally mandated limit of 45,274.
In 2016, the average daily population of immigrants in detention dipped to 34,376.
After the memo’s release on Monday night, Julián Castro, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and former Obama administration housing secretary, called the orders “truly sickening.”
“Families are fleeing violence and turmoil to seek refuge at our borders and Donald Trump wants to charge them a fee to gain asylum,” he said on Twitter.
This month, the White House took action over the rising number of border crossings when Mr. Trump forced out Ms. Nielsen, who oversaw attempts to tighten the asylum process and the administration’s family separations practice. The next day, the White House pushed out multiple other homeland security officials.
Stephen Miller, the president’s top immigration adviser, has assumed more power over shaping policies and decisions. He was behind the purge of homeland security officials and has advocated aggressive, legally dubious policies, including busing migrants to so-called sanctuary cities to retaliate against Democrats.
At the current pace of about 100,000 migrants each month, officials estimate more than a million people will have tried to cross the border within a year.
“The Coyotes and Drug Cartels are in total control of the Mexico side of the Southern Border,” Mr. Trump tweeted Monday night. “They have labs nearby where they make drugs to sell into the U.S. Mexico, one of the most dangerous country’s in the world, must eradicate this problem now. Also, stop the MARCH to U.S.”
Ms. Brané said the new restrictions would turn “asylum on its head.”
“The entire idea of asylum is that it’s something that you need because you are fleeing some sort of violence or persecution,” she said, “and to then say that it’s only accessible to people who can pay a fee doesn’t make sense.”
Speaking of the Trump administration’s broader approach to asylum, Ms. Brané said, “All of it has been aimed at reducing the number of people who can access the system as opposed to reducing the need for asylum by addressing root causes.”
While most asylum seekers pass their initial interview with an asylum officer, only about 20 percent ultimately win the right to live and work in the United States. Applicants must show evidence of past persecution and establish a “well founded” fear that they would face danger if they returned home.
As former commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, Mr. McAleenan helped carry out the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy to prosecute parents caught crossing the border illegally, which led to the family separations. But he has also emphasized the importance of aid to Central American countries — even though Mr. Trump cut State Department funding to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala this year.
Mr. McAleenan, who is seen by many as someone who can appeal to both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, will have an opportunity to do so on Tuesday morning, when he is expected to testify in front of the House Appropriations Committee.