Starting July 16, it will be harder than ever for refugees to seek asylum in the United States.
On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would be changing the Immigration and Nationality Act. He planned to do this by filing an Interim Final Rule, which is like an executive order, meaning it can go into effect without approval from Congress.
This ruling—formally filed by the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS)—overturned an existing “safe third country” law. It was replaced with a much more expansive, and much less safe, definition.
What Is the ‘Third Country’ Rule?
Instead of the previous “safe third country” rule, which was approved by the United States government, Trump introduced a “third country” rule. This new definition includes almost any country, regardless of its relative safety—or willingness to participate in an asylum coordination effort with the U.S.
The new “third country” rule states that refugees who have passed through any other country (a “third country”) and failed to seek asylum there, before reaching the United States, will automatically become ineligible for asylum in the U.S.
In the previous version of the law, a refugee had to only seek asylum when passing through another “safe” country. A “safe” country only qualified as such through cooperative partnership with the United States.
In 2019, the “safe third country” law was only in effect at the northern border, in agreement with Canada. (For example, if a refugee from Central America made it to the United States, they could not choose to cross the country to Canada and seek asylum there instead.)
What Does This Mean for Refugees?
The new ruling, which went into effect Tuesday, will make it almost impossible for refugees at the southern border to seek asylum in the U.S.
Now, if they have passed through countries that are racked with poverty and crime—including El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—they are supposed to apply for asylum in those countries rather than continue to a “safe” country, such as the United States. The rule does not seem to account for the fact that many of the refugees fleeing to the U.S. are already attempting to escape from hostile conditions in the countries that other refugees would be crossing through.
On Monday, Mexico stated that it does not plan to honor the new ruling. Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the new “third country” rule would effectively shift the burden of processing refugee asylum-seekers from Central America from the U.S. to Mexico. Though it has been cooperating with the Trump administration to help stem the increasing flow of migrants to the border, this could cause renewed friction between Mexico and the U.S.
Who Will the ‘Third Country’ Rule Affect?
While the ruling will largely affect hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence in Central and South America, it will also impact individuals from other countries—like Haiti and Cuba—who enter the U.S. via Mexico.
It will also affect the countries that will be expected to take on and process refugee claims, like Guatemala, El Salvador, and others, in addition to Mexico. While they may refuse to cooperate, only refugees who have attempted to claim asylum and been officially refused may then proceed to the United States. This means that those countries will still need to shoulder the burden of processing formal rejections, or else refugees will be unable to prove that they attempted to honor the new “third country” ruling.
DHS Acting Secretary Kevin K. McAleenan claims that the new ruling is actually intended to benefit refugees with faster processing times, stating:
“This interim rule will help reduce a major ‘pull’ factor driving irregular migration to the United States and enable DHS and DOJ to more quickly and efficiently process cases originating from the southern border, leading to fewer individuals transiting through Mexico on a dangerous journey.”
What Happens Next?
Analysts have already deemed this executive order illegal, and many groups, including the ACLU, have already threatened to sue. Once official, the case is expected to make its way to federal court.
A Guatemalan court has already refused to cooperate with Trump and volunteer itself as a “safe third country,” as of last weekend. Now, Mexico is also refusing to honor the deal.
At this time, refugees who were already across the border on Tuesday, July 16, would not be affected by the ruling. However, it is possible that the new ruling will cause delays and put refugees at risk if agents at the border begin turning away refugees who they believe failed to seek asylum in countries they passed through—despite their awareness of the new law, which was only announced Monday.
Experts suspect that the ruling will put many refugees in immediate danger, as the law applies to everyone—including families and young children traveling alone. They will have to determine if they want to seek asylum in unsafe countries with conditions similar to those they are fleeing, or proceed to the United States and, should they survive the perilous journey, risk being turned back.
DHS released a statement about the “third country” rule, which concluded:
“This rule mitigates the strain on the country’s immigration system by more efficiently identifying aliens who are misusing the asylum system to enter and remain in the United States rather than legitimately seeking urgent protection from persecution or torture.”