WASHINGTON • The Trump administration on Tuesday took another significant step to discourage migrants from seeking asylum in the US, issuing an order that could keep thousands of them in jail indefinitely while they wait for a resolution of their asylum requests.
In an effort to deliver on President Donald Trump's promise to end "catch and release" at the border, Attorney-General William Barr's order directed immigration judges to no longer allow some migrants who have sought asylum to post bail. The order will not go into effect for 90 days, and is all but certain to be challenged in federal court.
Immigrant-rights lawyers said it could undermine the basic rights of people seeking safety in the US.
"They want to send a message that you will get detained," said Ms Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the Immigrants Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's really obscene. We are talking about people who are fleeing for their lives, seeking safety. And our response is just lock them up."
For more than a decade, migrants who are deemed to have a "credible fear" of persecution in their home countries have been allowed to request a bond hearing so they can be released on bail while they wait for their asylum cases to be heard, sometimes months or years later.
A federal judge in Washington state this month affirmed the rights of individuals with a bona fide claim for asylum, saying they must be given the opportunity to seek bail within seven days of a request. But Mr Barr's order came in a case involving an Indian man who crossed into the United States from Mexico and claimed asylum.
Mr Barr, exercising his authority as the top official overseeing the immigration courts, said that migrants in similar cases do not have the right to bail. Such an immigrant, "after establishing a credible fear of persecution or torture is ineligible for release on bond," Mr Barr wrote in his order, which overrules a previous Board of Immigration Appeals case from 2005.
A migrant seeking asylum could still ask the Department of Homeland Security to be released under a grant of parole, but that is entirely at the discretion of the department, which under Mr Trump has sharply cut back on such releases.
Mr Barr's decision does not affect migrants applying for asylum at one of the two dozen ports of entry along the border with Mexico.
It affects people who are apprehended after they cross into the US illegally in the often vast, rural stretches of the border.
Mr Barr's order is the latest effort by the Trump administration to reduce the number of immigrants who are able to seek protection from violence, poverty and gangs by asking for legal status in the US.
At a recent campaign rally, Mr Trump said some asylum claims were a "big fat con job" and that migrants were met at the border by lawyers eager to press those claims.
In warning of the coming crackdown, the President said: "I'm not playing games."
Mr Trump has reduced the number of refugees who can be accepted each year. He has slowed the processing of asylum requests at ports of entry. And he has ordered that some asylum seekers wait in Mexico, rather than in the US, while their cases are heard.
Officials say the goal of the hard-line approach is to deter migrants from trying to enter the US. But the administration's policies - some of which have been blocked in the courts - have failed to stem the tide of arrivals in recent months.
Mr Barr's decision could add to the overcrowding crisis in the immigrant detention centres by requiring judges to keep asylum seekers in jail for longer periods.