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). That means 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. 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 any country that a refugee might pass through on their way to the border (in addition to Mexico). While those countries may refuse to cooperate, the refugees are still responsible for attempting to claim asylum there. They are only allowed to proceed to the United States if they have had their claim officially refused. This means that those countries will still need to shoulder the burden of processing formal rejections. Otherwise, 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 will make its way to federal court.
A Guatemalan court has already refused to cooperate with Trump. It has refused to volunteer itself as a “safe third country,” as of last weekend. Now, Mexico is also refusing to honor the deal.
At this time, the new ruling will not affect refugees who were already across the border on Tuesday, July 16. However, border agents might immediately begin turning away refugees for failing to abide the new law. This is a problem because the refugees could not possibly be aware of it, since the president just announced it on Monday.
Experts suspect that the ruling will put many refugees in immediate danger. That’s because the law applies to everyone—including families and young children traveling alone. They will have to consider seeking asylum in countries with conditions similar to those they are fleeing. Then, even if they survive the perilous journey, officials might still turn them 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.”