Rights groups sue Trump administration over new asylum rule

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Central American migrants cross the Rio Bravo river in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, across from El Paso, Texas

Central American migrants cross the Rio Bravo river in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, across from El Paso, Texas (AFP Photo/HERIKA MARTINEZ)

Los Angeles (AFP) - The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups filed a lawsuit on Tuesday challenging a new rule by the Trump administration barring most immigrants from obtaining US asylum if they pass through Mexico.

The new rule redefining asylum eligibility was to take effect Tuesday. It is the latest attempt to stem the flow of undocumented migrants into the United States and comes with the White House frustrated at Congress's failure to toughen immigration laws.

"This is the Trump administration's most extreme run at an asylum ban yet," ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said in a statement after the suit was filed at federal court in San Francisco.

"It clearly violates domestic and international law, and cannot stand," Gelernt added.

Cracking down on migration has been a signature policy of President Donald Trump.

The lawsuit against the government argues that the new rule was in violation of immigration laws that clearly state that asylum could not be denied based on a person's route to the United States.

"As part of our nation's commitment to the protection of people fleeing persecution and consistent with our international obligations, it is longstanding federal law that merely transiting through a third country is not a basis to categorically deny asylum to refugees who arrive at our shores," the complaint reads.

Attorney General Bill Barr said on Monday that the new restrictive measure was necessary because the US was overwhelmed by the number of asylum seekers coming in through the southern border.

US immigration officials have made clear they consider most of the recent migrants from Central America to be economic migrants, and thus not qualified for asylum.

"This rule will decrease forum shopping by economic migrants and those who seek to exploit our asylum system to obtain entry to the United States," Barr said.

- 'Relentless war' -

But the plaintiffs in the suit, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for Constitutional Rights, insist the measure is part of an attempt to undermine the US asylum system and close the door to refugees fleeing persecution.

"This administration's relentless war on asylum seekers is nothing short of despicable," said Melissa Crow, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project.

"Through policy after policy, this administration has manufactured the crisis at our southern border," she said, adding the new rule would worsen the situation and jeopardize the safety of migrants fleeing persecution.

The White House measure targets the stream of hundreds of thousands of migrants from Central America and other countries who have tried to cross into the United States from Mexico and request asylum over the past few months.

These requests -- increasingly made by families saying they have fled endemic violence and poverty in their countries -- allow the applicants to remain in the United States and to move around freely while their cases are adjudicated, which can take two years.

The number of border-crossers detained by the US Border Patrol surged to a 13-year high of more than 144,000 in May before easing to 104,000 in June -- still up 142 percent from a year earlier.

Most are families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.