CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court's clearing of the way for the Trump administration to deny nearly all asylum claims from Central Americans was denounced by immigration advocates as a "death sentence" for the many migrants trying to escape poverty and violence in their homelands.
The new policy would disallow asylum for anyone who passes through another country on the way to the U.S. without first seeking asylum there.
Migrants who make their way to the U.S. overland from places like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador would be largely ineligible under the new rule, along with asylum seekers from Africa, Asia and South America who arrive at the U.S.-Mexican border.
"Our Supreme Court is sentencing people to death. There are no safeguards, no institutions to stop this cruelty," the immigration group Al Otro Lado said in a statement. The organization provides legal assistance to migrants in San Diego and Tijuana.
The Mexican government likewise called the high court's action "astonishing." Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said he had meetings scheduled Thursday to evaluate what effect it will have on the country.
Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan called the Supreme Court's go-ahead a "big victory" in the Trump administration's attempt to curb the flow of migrants.
It was not immediately clear how and when the administration would put the new rule into effect, especially for the 45,000 people who have been turned back to wait out their asylum claims on the Mexican side of the border under yet another new, more stringent U.S. policy.
A Nicaraguan who has been waiting in Ciudad Juarez to request asylum in the U.S. is among those who would be affected. He fled his home country after running afoul of the Nicaraguan government with many acts of civil disobedience.
He passed through Honduras on his way to the border, meaning he would have to return to that violence-ridden country under the new rules. The immigrant asked that his name not be used because a past news report quoting him led to retaliation against family members in Nicaragua.
"The president of Nicaragua is friends with the president of Honduras, and what the Honduran president could do is send all of the Nicaraguans back to their country," he said. "And me, setting foot in Nicaragua again, what could happen to me is I could get locked up, be detained, and processed in Nicaragua for the crimes that they accuse me of — terrorism and high treason against the government of Nicaragua."
The justices' order late Wednesday temporarily undoes a lower court ruling that had blocked the new policy in some border states. It means the Trump administration can now enforce the rule everywhere while a legal challenge to it continues.
The shift reverses decades of U.S. policy.
"BIG United States Supreme Court WIN for the Border on Asylum!" President Donald Trump tweeted.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the high court's order.
"Once again, the Executive Branch has issued a rule that seeks to upend longstanding practices regarding refugees who seek shelter from persecution," Sotomayor wrote.
Asylum seekers must pass an initial screening called a "credible fear" interview, a hurdle that a vast majority clear. Under the new policy, they would fail the test unless they sought asylum in at least one country they traveled through and were denied. They would be placed in fast-track deportation proceedings and flown to their home countries at U.S. expense.
The American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who is representing immigrant advocacy groups in the case, Lee Gelernt, said: "This is just a temporary step, and we're hopeful we'll prevail at the end of the day. The lives of thousands of families are at stake."
Morgan said the Trump administration is "doing everything that they can" to address what he described as the crisis on the U.S. border with Mexico.
Migrants with valid claims "should be seeking help and asylum from the first country they come in contact with," Morgan said Thursday on Fox News. "They shouldn't be paying the cartels thousands of dollars and risking their lives to take a 1,000-mile journey across several countries to get help. We want them to get help and seek asylum in the first country they get to."
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman and Colleen Long contributed to this report.