SAN DIEGO – One of President Donald Trump's top priorities on immigration if he wins a second term would be to use agreements with Central American governments as models to get countries around the world to field asylum claims from people seeking refuge in the United States, a top adviser said.
Stephen Miller, a key architect of Trump’s immigration policies, said Friday the agreements would help stop "asylum fraud, asylum shopping and asylum abuse on a global scale.”
Miller, in an interview with The Associated Press, also forecast a broader offensive against so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities, saying the administration would use its “full power, resources and authority.” He vowed more efforts toward legal immigration “based on merit.”
The “Asylum Cooperative Agreements" that the administration struck in 2019 have allowed for asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras to be flown to Guatemala for an opportunity to seek asylum, denying them a chance to apply in the U.S.
From November to March, when the coronavirus pandemic halted flights to Guatemala, only 20 of 939 Hondurans and El Salvadorans flown there sought asylum. Nearly all went home in what became known as “deportation with a layover.”
Like many of Trump's policies that have dramatically transformed the U.S. immigration system, the bilateral agreements are being challenged in court. Critics note asylum-seekers are sent to countries with high levels of violence and poverty and little infrastructure to handle asylum claims.
The coronavirus struck before flights began to Honduras and El Salvador, putting those launches on hold.
Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden have given scant attention to immigration in their 2020 campaigns, despite a spirited exchange during Thursday’s debate that was prompted by news that court-appointed lawyers have been unable to find parents of 545 children who were separated from their families early in the Trump administration.
Trump has yet to outline second-term immigration priorities in detail, though he has openly toyed with trying to repeal a constitutional right to citizenship for anyone born in the United States.
Biden has pledged to undo many, but not all, of Trump’s policies. With the pandemic and other issues, it is unclear how much appetite Biden would have to tackle all that Trump has done.
Biden campaign spokesman Mike Gwin, reacting to Miller’s comments, highlighted how far apart the candidates are on immigration.
“We are going to win this election so that people like Stephen Miller don’t get the chance to write more xenophobic policies that dishonor our American values,” Gwin said. "Unlike Trump, Vice President Biden knows that immigrants make America stronger and helped build this country, and as president he’ll ensure that they continue to play the vital role they’ve held for our entire history: enriching our communities, bolstering our economy, and serving our nation in uniform.”
Biden will introduce legislation within his first 100 days to provide a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, bring back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to shield young people from deportation and “restore America’s historic commitment” to refuges and asylum-seekers, Gwin said.
Biden, on his campaign website, is silent about the asylum agreements that the Trump administration struck with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador last year but says he will end “detrimental" policies, including a cornerstone Trump effort to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court.
Administration officials have discussed adding countries from Africa and Asia to create a global web of accords resembling those with Central American governments. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were under heavy U.S. pressure to acquiesce last year, with Trump threatening at times to cut off international aid.
Such agreements could potentially be proposed to countries that send large numbers of asylum-seekers to the United States, such as Cameroon or China.
Trump, who made immigration a signature issue in his 2016 campaign, has introduced a flurry of regulations in recent months that are expected to be finalized soon after incorporating public feedback. They are largely about restricting asylum.
Administration officials are also looking at ways to do away with a lottery to award H-1B visas to highly skilled workers, many in the technology industry, replacing it with another selection method. H-1B visas are capped at 85,000 a year.
Miller said the administration would continue its efforts to redefine criteria for legal immigration, which are now largely based on family ties.
Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Wilmington, Del., contributed to this report.