The United States embarked Friday on a policy of automatically rejecting asylum claims of people who cross the Mexican border illegally in a bid to deter Central American migrants and force Mexico to handle them.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at halting the flow of migrants seeking to cross into the United States without papers, most of them requesting asylum due to violence in their home countries.
"The continuing and threatened mass migration of aliens with no basis for admission into the United States through our southern border has precipitated a crisis and undermines the integrity of our borders," Trump said in the order.
Trump used his emergency powers for the order, which critics said violates international law protecting asylum seekers.
"US law specifically allows individuals to apply for asylum whether or not they are at a port of entry. It is illegal to circumvent that by agency or presidential decree," said Omar Jadwat of the American Civil Liberties Union.
But US officials said that as Mexico is the first safe country US-bound migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras arrive in, the asylum claims should be presented there.
"Mexico is undoubtedly a safe country for these individuals fleeing persecution," an administration official told journalists Friday.
"They should be seeking protection in Mexico."
Trump's order was explicit in wanting Mexico to deal with the problem. It said the automatic denial of asylum claims to illegal border-crossers would continue for 90 days or until there is an agreement which "permits the United States to remove aliens to Mexico."
The United States regularly sends Mexican undocumented entrants back across the border to their country, but has had difficulties gaining cooperation to repatriate Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans.
The move came as a caravan of thousands of migrants, which Trump has branded an "invasion" of "criminals," makes its way northward through Mexico toward the border.
The US order says asylum requests will continue to be accepted from migrants who seek to cross at official US ports of entry.
But directing the migrants to the official ports could create massive backups among applicants on the Mexican side of the border.
US officials indicated Saturday that they had no plans to expand staffing of asylum claim facilities at the ports.
They said staff already had other duties processing legal travellers, inspecting cargoes and policing for drugs.
"There are multiple responsibilities at a port of entry and you can't simply move all of your resources to migrant processing," said one border official.