The US Supreme Court has handed President Donald Trump a significant victory on migration policy, allowing his administration to in effect block for the time being almost all new asylum claims made by Central American migrants at the southern border with Mexico.
The court decided on Wednesday that a rule requiring asylum seekers to apply for shelter in the first country they reach on their journey to the US could go into effect while challenges to its legality are heard, a process that could take up to a year. This means, for example, that Guatemalans need to first claim asylum in Mexico or Hondurans in Guatemala.
Mr Trump has made a crackdown on migration a key plank of his presidency and his bid for re-election next year, arguing that a surge in asylum seekers at the southern border constitutes a national emergency.
“BIG United States Supreme Court WIN for the Border on Asylum!” the president tweeted after the ruling.
Two Supreme Court judges, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, dissented from the order. Ms Sotomayor said the administration’s new rule “seeks to upend longstanding practices regarding refugees who seek shelter from persecution”.
Rising gang violence and economic stagnation have driven record numbers of migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to journey across Mexico and attempt to enter the US this year. US border authorities have arrested more than 400,000 migrant family members from those three countries so far this fiscal year.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others who challenged the administration’s policy argued that it violated US immigration law. They accused the US government of pursuing an “asylum ban” and jeopardising the safety of migrants fleeing persecution.
The Supreme Court ruling ends weeks of legal argument between different US courts over whether to allow a temporary injunction blocking the rule. But it does not settle the merits of whether the rule itself is legal, which will be determined at trial, probably some time next year.
“This is just a temporary step, and we’re hopeful we’ll prevail at the end of the day,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said.
The court’s decision dismayed Mexico, which is already struggling to cut the flow of Central American migrants across its territory to the US under a threat from Mr Trump to impose punitive tariffs on its exports if it fails to deliver. Mexican asylum-seekers are not affected by the ruling because the US is the first country they reach.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftwing populist, is keen to avoid conflict with his northern neighbour and focus on a domestic agenda of reducing poverty. But Mr Trump’s aggressive moves on migration make it increasingly difficult for him to avoid the impression that he is being pushed around by Washington.
Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, said the country was studying the full impact of the Supreme Court’s decision. Mexico this week agreed to a rollout “to the fullest extent possible” of a controversial US policy to return asylum seekers to Mexico to await their US immigration court hearings.
Guatemala’s highest court this week lifted an injunction that had halted an unpopular safe third country-style arrangement agreed by the outgoing government of Jimmy Morales and Washington, but other legal challenges could follow.
Honduras, the top country of origin for migrants apprehended at the US border, is also exploring some kind of immigration co-operation with the US, in a bid to stop Cubans and Nicaraguans headed north.
Currently about 4,000 migrants a week are being returned under the programme dubbed “Remain in Mexico”, sometimes to highly dangerous cartel-controlled border areas. As many as 70,000 asylum-seekers have been returned already, according to Adam Isacson, an expert on migration at the Washington Office on Latin America, who called it “a nightmare scenario”.
While Mexico has sought to avoid confrontation with the US, and is pushing for development projects in Central America to address the root causes of migration, Mr Ebrard on Thursday issued a rare condemnation of Washington’s failure to stem the illegal tide of arms heading south.
“The US has to take concrete action in reciprocity for what Mexico is doing on migration,” he said. “What is being done is little, if not nothing.”
Nicholas Watson, Latin America managing director at the consultancy Teneo, said Mr López Obrador’s government “must be hoping the measure is eventually reversed”.
“A bigger build-up of migrants on the Mexican side of the border would be costly and could actually exacerbate existing security problems, while also hardening local attitudes against migration,” he said.
Mr López Obrador attempted to show a brave face on Wednesday night, tweeting that he had held a “good telephone conversation” with Mr Trump and adding: “We reaffirmed our will to maintain a relationship of friendship and co-operation between our peoples and our governments.”
Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the US House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee, and Zoe Lofgren, the head of the judiciary panel’s immigration subcommittee, called the court’s decision disappointing.
“Lives will be lost. This rule will result in those fleeing fear and persecution to be turned away at our doorstep and will only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the region,” they said in a statement.