Trump promises immigration crackdown ahead of US elections

WASHINGTON, Nov 1 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Thursday his administration planned to require immigrants seeking asylum in the United States to come into the country through a legal port of entry, pushing a hard line on immigration ahead of elections next week.

The president's remarks, five days before U.S. voters determine which party will control Congress and state governorships across the country, drew immediate criticism as an effort to generate fear and energize his political base.

"Migrants seeking asylum will have to present themselves lawfully at a port of entry," Trump told reporters at the White House, painting a caravan of migrants traveling from Central America toward the United States as a dangerous threat.

"Those who choose to break our laws and enter illegally will no longer be able to use meritless claims to gain automatic admission into our country," he said.

It was not clear whether the plan would pass legal muster, although Trump, who sought to use immigration as an issue to motivate Republican voters in the 2016 presidential race and now ahead of the Nov. 6 elections, said it would. He added that an executive order was in the process of being finalized, but provided few details.

Federal law provides that any immigrant in the United States may apply for asylum, regardless of whether he or she enters the country through a designated port of entry.

Trump has ramped up his tough stance on illegal immigration in recent days. He deemed the group of migrants from Central America a threat to Americans. It is made up of people who have left poverty and violence at home and are heading slowly through Mexico toward the U.S. border. Trump referred to the movement as an "invasion."

Mexico on Wednesday put the size of the caravan that left Honduras in mid-October at 2,800 to 3,000 people. Other caravans have since followed.

The president, who has ordered U.S. troops to the border with Mexico, also suggested rock-throwing by migrants would be treated as equivalent to gun usage.

"They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back. We're going to consider, and I told them to consider it a rifle. When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military police, I say: Consider it a rifle," Trump said.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Davis, declined to discuss specifics on the military's potential use of force, but said that U.S. troops "always have the inherent right of self-defense."

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A look inside the operations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Assistant Field Office Director Jorge Field (L), 53, arrests an Iranian immigrant in San Clemente, California, U.S., May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "NICHOLSON ARREST" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Assistant Field Office Director Jorge Field, 53, arrests an Iranian immigrant in San Clemente, California, U.S., May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "NICHOLSON ARREST" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Assistant Field Office Director Jorge Field (R), 53, arrests Mexican national Adalberto Magana-Gonzalez, 44, in San Clemente, California, U.S., May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "NICHOLSON ARREST" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers conduct a targeted enforcement operation in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. on February 9, 2017. Picture taken on February 9, 2017. Courtesy Bryan Cox/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers detain a suspect as they conduct a targeted enforcement operation in Los Angeles, California, U.S. on February 7, 2017. Picture taken on February 7, 2017. Courtesy Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer helps out a few boys who are trying to make phone calls as they are joined by hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children that are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Arizona June 18, 2014. CBP provided media tours Wednesday of two locations in Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, that have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since October 1, 2013. REUTERS/Ross D. Franklin/Pool (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS)
Migrants, consisting of mostly women and children, disembark from a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bus at a Greyhound bus station in Phoenix, Arizona May 29, 2014. Local media reported that ICE had been releasing migrants who pose no security risk at Greyhound bus stations in Tuscon and Phoenix due to a lack of manpower, and those released have to make their own way to their declared U.S. destinations and are required to report to a local ICE office within 15 days. REUTERS/Samantha Sais (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY IMMIGRATION TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers arrive to a Flatbush Gardens home in search of an undocumented immigrant on April 11, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. New York is considered a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement. ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officer brings an undocumented immigrant into an ICE processing center on April 11, 2018 at the U.S. Federal Building in lower Manhattan, New York City. ICE detentions are especially controversial in New York, considered a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement. ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officer interviews an immigrant at an ICE processing center after officers arrested her on April 11, 2018 inside the U.S. Federal Building in lower Manhattan, New York City. ICE detentions are frequently controversial in New York, considered a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement. ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers prepare for morning operations to arrest undocumented immigrants on April 11, 2018 in New York City. New York is considered a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement. ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers look to arrest an undocumented immigrant during an operation in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 11, 2018 in New York City. New York is considered a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement. ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers depart after an operation to arrest an wanted undocumented immigrant on April 11, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. New York is considered a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement. ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), security officers watch over undocumented immigrant at an ICE processing center on April 11, 2018 at the U.S. Federal Building in lower Manhattan, New York City. ICE detentions are especially controversial in New York, considered a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement. ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers arrive to a Flatbush Gardens home in search of a wanted undocumented immigrant on April 11, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. New York is considered a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement. ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
A security officer looks out of a window at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in Washington DC on October 4, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
A police officer and a security officer look on at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in Washington DC on October 4, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 11: A law enforcement officer walks past ICE logo ahead of a press conference on Thursday, May 11, 2017, at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington, DC. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers search undocumented immigrants after detaining them in raids and bringing them to an ICE processing center on April 11, 2018 at the U.S. Federal Building in lower Manhattan, New York City. ICE detentions are especially controversial in New York, considered a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement. ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers stage a raid to arrest an undocumented immigrant in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 11, 2018 in New York City. ICE detentions are frequently controversial in New York, considered a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement. ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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'ABSURD AS IT IS CRUEL'

Critics said the president was stoking fear ahead of the elections, in which Trump's Republicans are battling to keep their congressional majorities.

"President Trump’s attempt to paint peaceful families seeking asylum as a national security threat is as absurd as it is cruel," said advocacy group Human Rights First in a statement. "The president is fear mongering to score political points ahead of a contentious election at the expense of people’s lives."

The American Civil Liberties Union said: "If he plans at some point to prohibit people from applying for asylum between the ports of entry, that plan is illegal."

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, an ally of the president and head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a letter to the secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department that his office had received information that several members of the caravan had "significant criminal histories."

Trump said on Wednesday the United States could send as many as 15,000 troops to the border to confront the migrant caravan, more than twice the number previously disclosed by defense officials.

A U.S. defense official said about 100 active-duty troops arrived on the border at McAllen, Texas, on Thursday.

Republican lawmakers and other Trump supporters have applauded the deployment. But critics argue Trump has manufactured a crisis for the U.S. military to address.

Trump also said this week he would seek to scrap the constitutional right of citizenship for U.S.-born children of noncitizens and illegal immigrants. Such an action would face a likely legal challenge.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Makini Brice, Kristina Cooke, Lisa Lambert, Idrees Ali and Tom Hals; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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