Migrants who come to the United States seeking asylum may instead wind up jailed indefinitely while they wait for their claims to be processed, the Trump administration ruled Tuesday in its latest crackdown at the border.
Attorney General William Barr's written decision, a policy reversal, applies to migrants who have already established "a credible fear of persecution or torture" in their home country.
Barr ordered immigration judges to stop allowing some asylum seekers from posting bail while they wait the months or years for their cases to be heard - a system that President Donald Trump has derided as "catch and release."
But advocates criticized the policy change and said it would lock up people who are simply looking for safety.
"Unless stopped, this decision will result in the unlawful jailing of thousands of people who should not be behind bars," said Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, in a tweet.
Barr said the order wouldn't go into effect for 90 days, a three-month time frame that will probably see rights groups challenge the ruling in court.
"We will see the administration in court on this latest unlawful & inhuman attempt to deter and punish asylum-seekers," Jadwat wrote.
Barr's ruling reversed the decision in a 2005 case in which an Indian man entered the United States from Mexico and requested asylum. Parole, granted solely and sparingly by the Department of Homeland Security, will be the only way asylum seekers who crossed the border illegally can be released once the order goes into effect.
Barr's decision to withhold bail from asylum seekers comes as record numbers of Central American families are crossing into the United States, many of whom are fleeing violence and poverty. These migrants know they can seek asylum under federal law and be released into the country pending court hearings about their claims, The Washington Post reported earlier this month.
Trump has expressed frustration with the asylum system, alleging that U.S. laws protecting immigrants from persecution obstruct his ability to safeguard the country.
He has implored Congress to change these laws and has made numerous attempts to stymie immigration, most notably separating children from their parents at the border last year. These policies have outraged Democrats.
"From separating families to attacking asylum seekers, this administration's bottomless cruelty has failed time and time again," said Julián Castro, a Democratic presidential candidate. "We need compassion, not cruelty, in our immigration system."
In November, a federal judge blocked Trump's asylum ban, which would have prevented asylum for migrants if they crossed into the United States illegally. And earlier this month, a judge shut down a proposed experimental policy known as Migrant Protection Protocols, which would have required migrants to stay in Mexico while awaiting their hearings.
The judge ordered the program suspended and granted entry to the plaintiffs, a ruling Trump dubbed a “disgrace,” adding, “we have the worst laws of any country in the world.”