A Mission Police Dept. officer (L), and a U.S. Border Patrol agent watch over a group of Central American asylum seekers before taking them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.

© 2018 Getty Images

“Give me your rich and well-rested…yearning to breathe free.” So the Trump administration seeks to rewrite America’s traditional welcome to the persecuted: from now on the huddled masses, or anyone fleeing conflict and abuse, will have to pay a fee for the right to seek asylum.

President Trump ordered the change in an April 29 memo to Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, and Attorney General William P. Barr, ordering them to promulgate regulations that would impose a fee to apply for asylum and also bar work authorization for asylum seekers who cross the border irregularly, until their cases are adjudicated.

This assumes asylum seekers can afford to pay a fee, maintain themselves without working for months or years, and still afford an immigration attorney to represent them. But that is not the case. While asylum seekers are not economic migrants, in my experience, they are mostly poor. As such, they are caught in a triple whammy. They will have to pay for the government’s costs in processing their asylum claim, but they won’t be allowed to earn the money to pay. Finally, if asylum seekers in the United States are unable to hire a lawyer because, unlike criminals, they do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney, they will find themselves facing an immigration judge and a prosecuting trial attorney in an intimidating court environment where they don’t know the rules and usually don’t speak the language.

The foundation of international refugee law is the prohibition on sending refugees back to face threats to their lives or freedom; it is not reserved for those who can pay. Consider the poor Central American woman whose government fails to protect her from violence being told that she must pay to have her refugee claim heard. Can you imagine Bangladesh or Lebanon setting up bureaucrats with cash registers at their borders to charge fleeing Rohingya or Syrian refugees for the right to seek asylum?

It’s bad enough that Trump laments not separating more children from their parents at the border, that his attorneys general deny the right to bond hearings for asylum seekers in detention, and broadly seek to disqualify asylum seekers fleeing gangs and domestic violence; now his administration tries to squeeze blood from a stone by making asylum seekers pay for the privilege of accessing their fundamental rights. The callousness of this proposal is surpassed only by its pettiness.