STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump followed through on one of his last-minute campaign promises - not the promise of a 10 percent middle-class tax cut, which was supposed to materialize just before the election, but a promise to crack down on immigrants, which is going ahead. The administration published an executive action against asylum seekers. It says when people cross the border from Mexico and apply for asylum, they must apply only at a legal port of entry. Now, this morning, the president addressed this rules change before boarding Air Force One for a trip to Europe.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's very important. We need Democrat support on new immigration laws to bring us up to date. The laws are obsolete, and they're incompetent. They are the worst laws any country has anywhere in the world.
INSKEEP: So let's discuss this with NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, good morning.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What people are we talking about here that'd be affected?
HORSLEY: This rule is really aimed at the large influx of families and children who have been coming to the U.S. border from Central America. If you look at the overall number of people crossing the border illegally, it's way down from its peak a generation ago. But the makeup of that population has changed. We're not talking so much now about single adults from Mexico, who are easy to expel, but families and children from Central America who, for legal reasons, wind up staying in the U.S., are harder for the government to deal with. And so that's who they're trying to address with this new rule.
INSKEEP: Well, this new rule sounds on the surface, Scott, pretty straightforward. You know, if you want to apply for asylum, there's got to be a process. There are legal border crossings, and the rule says, go to the legal border crossing because if you don't, we're going to throw you out of the country. What's wrong with that?
HORSLEY: You're exactly right. The administration says what they're trying to do is funnel people to the border crossings where they have the resources to process their asylum claims. But this runs into a competing law which says, if you make it to U.S. soil, even if you've crossed the border illegally, you're eligible to apply for asylum. And so that's the sort of competing laws here that the federal courts are probably going to have to sort out.
INSKEEP: Can I just understand the rationale there? Is the rationale that if you're sincerely applying for asylum, you may be desperate, and who knows how you get into the country, but the point is to get here and see if you have legal status to stay?
HORSLEY: I think that's the underpinning of that long-standing law. Now, the White House is relying on a different law which gives the president broad authority to deny entry to any immigrant or class of immigrants that he thinks might be detrimental to the interest of the United States. That's the same authority that the White House relied on for that travel ban that the president issued in his first week in office, directed at would-be visitors from a number of majority-Muslim countries. That ban, you'll recall, was initially blocked by the federal courts. But after it went through a couple of rewrites, it was ultimately upheld this past summer by the U.S. Supreme Court.
INSKEEP: Well, that's an interesting example, Scott, because with the travel ban, also, there were arguably competing laws. And if you read one, it was obviously wrong. And if you read another, you might find a way that it was right or correct. Can we anticipate, then, lawsuits over this rule change involving asylum-seekers?
HORSLEY: Yes, the immigrant advocate activists have been bracing for this. And I'm sure they are figuratively lined up at the courthouse door, ready to challenge the administration's move as soon as they have a test case.
INSKEEP: And very briefly, does this fit into the administration's broader immigration policy?
HORSLEY: Yes. I mean, Donald Trump has been campaigning against immigration, both legal and illegal, since he launched his White House bid. The administration has sharply reduced the number of refugees that it's allowing into the United States. And the president has also tried to curtail the number of immigrants who are admitted to the U.S. legally.
INSKEEP: Scott, thanks for the update, as always.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.