NOEL KING, HOST:
The Trump administration has announced a major new step in its efforts to turn back asylum-seekers who are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. A new rule announced this morning requires migrants to apply for asylum in the first country they pass through on their way into the U.S.
NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He's with me in the studio now. Hi, Joel.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: So I guess the big question is, can the Trump administration just go ahead and say this is how it works from now on?
ROSE: Well, the administration has been arguing for months that something like this needs to be done because the U.S. immigration system is overwhelmed with asylum-seekers arriving at the southern border, most but not entirely coming from Central America. The administration has been pressuring Congress to change asylum law, but that has not happened. So the administration is going to go ahead and rewrite the law on its own through a rule that will be published in the Federal Register and take effect tomorrow and will surely draw a legal challenge as soon as it is.
KING: And what will the challengers likely be saying? Why can't the administration do this?
ROSE: Well, I talked to a couple of immigration - immigrant advocates and experts this morning. One said that this is illegal on its face - her words. The law states that migrants can ask for asylum in the U.S. no matter how they got here, according to this advocate. Another one said that this is creating new law without going through Congress and doing it practically overnight with a rule that's supposed to take effect tomorrow.
KING: And yet, the administration is arguing, look; we don't really have a choice. What is their argument there?
ROSE: Well, they say this is an emergency - that more than 100,000 migrants have been taken into custody at the southern border four months in a row now. Most of those migrants are seeking asylum here. And the administration argues that if this new rule went through a normal review process, it would take months to get through. And in that time, even more migrants would be flooding the border, trying to get in ahead of this rule change. Migrants are savvy, the administration argues, and so are human smugglers, who would probably make this part of their pitch to recruit more customers.
KING: So you would have Central American countries - not the United States, but Central American countries now would have an influx of migrants. People would be waiting there. What are these countries in Central America saying?
ROSE: Well, we'll be watching very closely to see what they say and what Mexico says in particular because we know that Mexico has been reluctant to take in all of these asylum-seekers, and it's been under pressure to do that. The U.S. has been pushing Mexico and Guatemala to sign what is known as a "safe third country" agreement with the United States. We already have that agreement with Canada, which - and what it means is that if asylum-seekers travel through Canada on their way to the U.S., they have to ask for asylum there first in Canada.
Immigrant advocates are OK with that because Canada is widely considered a safe place for refugees and for asylum-seekers. But that is not the case, advocates would argue, with Mexico or certainly with Guatemala, you know, which has been losing hundreds of thousands of migrants...
ROSE: ...You know, in recent months. And advocates say it would be a human rights disaster to turn vulnerable people around and send them back, you know, to Central America.
KING: I mean, as you've been reporting, the administration has been trying for a long time now to stop the flow of asylum-seekers coming north. How does this fit into other endeavors, other moves?
ROSE: This is an escalation according to, you know, the advocates that I've talked to. I mean, they say it would effectively end protections for nearly all migrants coming from Central America, you know. And - you're right. The administration has been trying a lot of ways to do this - to discourage more migrants from coming. Many of those ways have been blocked in court.
ROSE: A few have succeeded, but many more have been blocked. And the ACLU has been leading the charge in a lot of these cases to defend the rights of migrants seeking asylum. They just put out a statement that says in part, quote, "the Trump administration is trying to unilaterally reverse our country's legal and moral commitment to protect those fleeing danger," unquote. The ACLU says it will sue to block this swiftly. I assume that means tomorrow, when the rule takes effect.
KING: So this heads to the courts.
NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. Joel, thanks so much.
ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.