Amid a leadership shakeup in the top ranks of its immigration agencies, the White House is considering several major changes to immigration policies meant to stem the flow of illegal aliens into the country across the southwest border.
According to a senior administration official, the White House is weighing steps that would force changes to the current asylum system, which President Donald Trump and Republicans say are fundamentally flawed. The Trump administration is also reviewing the possibility of restricting remittances to Mexico and South America to remove some financial incentives to migration.
One policy on deck would offer a “binary choice” for illegal alien family units who claim asylum, the official said. The adults in the family unit would be given a choice to either go into long-term detention as a family until their asylum claim is adjudicated or to send their children to government shelters while the case is being decided.
The families who choose to stay together would surrender their rights to a limited 20-day detention period mandated by the decades-old Flores court settlement. The 20-day limit is the cause of the so-called catch-and-release loophole, which forces immigration authorities to release illegal aliens claiming asylum into the interior before their claims are adjudicated.
The vast majority of asylum claims are rejected but the migrants, once inside the United States, rarely show up for deportation proceedings and avoid capture by fleeing to sanctuary states. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have released more than 120,000 into the interior so far this year. An estimated 1 million illegal aliens with final deportation orders currently reside in the United States.
“I think that the whole asylum rules, laws, and regulations have been taken advantage of by people that are very bad people, in many cases,” Trump said when asked about the binary choice policy for asylum seekers.
“These are the people running the cartels. They’re gaming the system; they have been for years. The only difference is our economy is now so strong that more people come up,” the president added.
The binary choice policy would shift the responsibility for family separations onto the illegal aliens themselves since each family would be offered a choice to stay together or be separated. The Trump administration faced fierce blowback in 2018 when Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered that all aliens who break the law by crossing the border illegally be prosecuted for the crime. The “zero-tolerance” policy resulted in adults being prosecuted and separated from their children, the same procedure law enforcement follows when arresting and prosecuting U.S. citizens.
Democrats, aided by media outlets explicitly opposed to Trump, used the family separations as political ammunition to hammer the president. Trump was eventually forced to end the practice. On April 9, he said he would not reinstate the policy, but lamented not having the option, since migrants are coming to exploit the loophole.
“Once you don’t have it, that’s why you see many more people coming. They’re coming like it’s a picnic because let’s go to Disneyland,” Trump said.
The White House is also considering a legal strategy to trigger a court challenge by simply detaining minors for longer than the 20-day maximum established in the court ruling. The senior administration official said the move would spur a legal battle that may eventually lead to the overturning of the Flores settlement. A senior administration official told reporters that the ongoing leadership reshuffle was triggered in part because officials were slow in bringing about this extended detention regulation.
The administration also is considering restricting remittance payments to Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. An estimated $53.4 billion in remittances flowed to the four countries in 2018, a major boost to the impoverished nations, according to the World Bank.
Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of several people rumored to be under consideration to fill the leadership vacuum amid the shakeup, proposed eliminating the remittances entirely. Kobach told Breitbart on April 9 that the mere threat may force Mexico to stop the flow of Central American migrants across its territory.
Kobach is under consideration to replace Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who resigned April 7. The next day, Randolph “Tex” Alles, the chief of the Secret Service, also resigned. The day after that, DHS acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady offered her resignation.
One official with knowledge of the matter said more officials may be on their way out, including the general counsel of DHS, John Mitnick, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Lee Francis Cissna.
A senior administration official said the DHS has been too slow in drafting new rules that would tighten immigration. The official singled out USCIS, saying it had not moved quickly enough to tighten H-1B visas for skilled workers and has granted an “astronomical” number of asylum claims.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan is due to take Nielsen’s place on a temporary basis, starting April 10. Asked whether he was considering nominating McAleenan as his permanent secretary, Trump said it “could happen.”
“We have others, but right now he’s the man,” the president added.
Trump has interviewed several candidates for the top job during the past week and a half, including former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and former acting head of ICE Thomas Homan.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Congress needed to set aside its differences to overhaul immigration laws, which it has repeatedly failed to do over the past 15 years.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.