By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration took a major step on Thursday to restrict asylum claims by migrants, putting forward a regulation that would make individuals ineligible for asylum if they cross the U.S. southern border illegally.
Once the plan goes into full effect, which is expected to happen in coming days, migrants entering at the U.S. southern border would only be eligible for asylum if they come to official ports of entry.
"What we are attempting to do is trying to funnel ... asylum claims through the ports of entry where we are better resourced, have better capabilities and better manpower and staffing to actually handle those claims in an expeditious and efficient manner," a senior administration official told reporters in a news briefing on Thursday, on condition of anonymity.
The plan is the Trump administration's latest move to limit the eligibility of migrants for asylum in the United States.
The regulation would largely affect migrants from Central America's Northern Triangle - Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - who cross the U.S. border with Mexico to flee violence and poverty in their home countries.
"The vast majority of aliens who enter illegally today come from the Northern Triangle countries, and large portions of those aliens assert a credible fear," the regulation's text says. "Channelling those aliens to ports of entry would encourage these aliens to first avail themselves of offers of asylum from Mexico."
Immigrant advocates quickly denounced the administration's move.
"U.S. law specifically allows individuals to apply for asylum whether or not they are at a port of entry," said Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project. "It is illegal to circumvent that by agency or presidential decree."
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney)