WASHINGTON (AP) — It is, arguably, the most sweeping step that President Donald Trump’s administration has taken to try to stop the flow of migrants at the border — the kind of thing he might have been expected to promote on Twitter and brandish in front of news cameras as proof he is taking hardline steps to crack down on illegal immigration.
Under proposed new rules, Trump would effectively end asylum, barring claims from migrants who’d traveled through Mexico from other countries and closing the door to tens of thousands of individuals and families fleeing violence and economic duress in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Instead, the move one week ago has been followed by relative silence about the policy change.
Trump has yet to tweet about the effort or discuss it publicly, even when prompted. Asked specifically about the move by a reporter last week, Trump took the conversation elsewhere. His most prominent anti-immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, failed to mention the effort during a Sunday talk show appearance. And a senior Department of Homeland Security official tried to play down its significance before issuing a quiet retraction.
The approach has been met with surprise by some who have spent more than two years fighting Trump’s attempted immigration changes.
“I think we were all surprised that the administration has conceded that the policy may be quickly enjoined and even suggested that it wasn’t as broad as everyone assumed,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, who was traveling to California on Monday to argue against the changes in court.
“Normally,” he said, the administration has “tried to paint their policies as broad and unprecedented as possible.”
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the strategy, but several senior administration officials seemed to have paid the measure and its rollout little attention themselves.
Observers offered several potential explanations, including possible fatigue over an endless stream of immigration orders, rules and changes that seem to blur together — including another Monday that would expand the authority of immigration officers to deport migrants without requiring them to appear before judges. In addition, the announcement came during an especially crowded news cycle, with Trump’s racist tweets and comments targeting four Democratic congresswoman of color commanding most of the attention in Washington over the past week.
When Miller appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” for instance, he did not field a single question on immigration policy and instead spent his segment defending the tweets. And lawmakers didn’t bring it up when Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan appeared before a House committee last week to discuss family separations.
Others cited the fact that both activists and administration officials seem certain the asylum change will be blocked by the courts, as have so many of Trump’s previous immigration efforts.
“If we thought this really was going to be the new policy of the land, we would be lying down in front of ICE buses and taking over DHS facilities,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a liberal immigration reform group. But, he said, “just about everybody expects it to be enjoined by the court and the preparation for the implementation of the strategy has been almost non-existent.”
Sharry said the administration appeared more interested in producing a headline to scare off potential migrants than actually following through with policy changes.
“They’re trying to use cruelty as a deterrent and tough talk as a deterrent. And so this was, ‘Let’s get a headline that says we’re stopping asylum,'” Sharry said.
But the threat of court action didn’t stop the administration from stirring up attention for past efforts that have either been quickly blocked by judges or abandoned at the last minute — including the first iterations of Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban” and his threat to shut down the entire southern border.
This time, however, the effort was announced with little fanfare — published quietly in the Federal Register — with a joint statement hours later from the attorney general and McAleenan, but no explanation of how it would work practically at the border.
Some Homeland Security officials said they were caught off guard by the regulations’ introduction and unsure about how to implement the new process alongside the administration’s other efforts to curb asylum, including the so-called “remain in Mexico” program. That program forces asylum-seekers to wait out their cases in Mexico.
There also appears to be confusion within the department’s highest ranks. Mark Morgan, the new acting head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, tried to downplay the effort in an NPR interview last week, saying the administration would only be testing the new rules in a pilot program along one small stretch of the border. He also said he doubted the courts would allow the rule to move forward, citing two federal lawsuits seeking to block it.
“We’re actually anticipating that probably the regulation will be enjoined,” he said.
But no mention of a piecemeal approach had been made previously and Morgan walked back the comment hours later.
The rule “speaks to asylum eligibility and applies to all amenable individuals,” he said.
A judge on Monday said he’d decide as soon as possible whether to block the rules temporarily while the case played out. The judge cited Morgan’s comments in his questioning, wondering why the government would have a problem with halting the new rules if they anticipated it anyway.
Trump, meanwhile, was busy tweeting about the self-described “squad” of Democratic congresswomen, calling their views on immigration “So bad for our Country!”
Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.