U.S. President Donald Trump said in a speech Thursday afternoon that the military will no longer release asylum seekers detained at the southern border ahead of their trial date.
“We’re not releasing anymore – we’re going to no longer release, we’re going to catch, we’re not going to release, they’re going to stay with us until the deportation hearing or the asylum hearing takes place,” the president told reporters.
On Thursday, Trump was expected to announce his plans to automatically deny asylum to migrants who try to enter the U.S. illegally between ports of entry — part of his latest election-season response to caravans heading toward the border.
He added that asylum is “about safety,” rather than “a program for those that are living in poverty.”
It was unclear whether the restrictions Trump was expected to propose would apply only to those traveling in the caravans or extend to all people trying to enter the country. And it also was questionable whether Trump has the legal authority.
The asylum clause of the Immigration and Nationality Act says that anyone who arrives to the U.S. may apply for asylum. And any change would almost certainly be immediately challenged in court.
When asked whether the new policy would be legal, he told reporters “this is totally legal, this is an invasion.”
WATCH: U.S. troops get ready as migrant caravan draws nearer top U.S. border
Trump was to make his announcement during brief remarks Thursday afternoon, according to three people familiar with the plans. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly by name.
The administration has been discussing various options to address the caravans for days and it was possible that things could change before Trump’s 4:15 p.m. remarks “on the illegal immigration crisis” before he departs the White House for a campaign rally in Missouri.
WATCH: Caravan of migrants continues trek towards U.S.
The announcement would be Trump’s latest attempt to keep the issue of immigration front-and-center as he tries to drum up GOP enthusiasm in the final stretch before next Tuesday’s elections, which will determine whether the GOP retains control of Congress. Trump and his aides have long believed immigration is key to turning out his base, and he has seized on the caravans of Central American migrants slowly making their way through Mexico toward the U.S.
The president announced on Wednesday that he was considering deploying up to 15,000 troops to the U.S.-Mexican border in response to the still far-off caravans — roughly double the number the Pentagon said it currently plans for a mission whose dimensions are shifting daily.
Trump and other administration officials have long encouraged those seeking asylum to come through legal ports of entry. But many migrants are unaware of that guidance, and official border crossings have grown increasingly clogged. Immigration officials have turned away asylum-seekers at ports of entry because of overcrowding, telling them to return at a later date. Backlogs have grown especially bad in recent months at crossings in California, Arizona and Texas, with people generally waiting five weeks to claim asylum at San Diego’s main crossing and sleeping out in the open for days at a time.
The administration has also been ramping up security at ports of entry this week. In McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, workers were seen installing additional gates and fences along a walkway on a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico, according to The Monitor paper of McAllen.
WATCH: Second migrant caravan smashes through Mexico border as clashes erupt
Migrants who cross illegally are generally arrested and often seek asylum or some other form of protection. Claims have spiked in recent years, and there is currently a backlog of more than 800,000 cases pending in immigration court. Administration officials have railed against what they say are loopholes designed to encourage people, especially from Central America, to come to the U.S. and claim asylum. Generally, only about 20 percent of applicants are approved.
The U.S. fielded more than 330,000 asylum claims in 2017, nearly double the number two years earlier and surpassing Germany as highest in the world. A U.N. Refugee Agency report doesn’t break out exactly where and how they claimed asylum.
There are currently four caravans making their way toward the U.S. The main group of about 4,000 migrants — down from its estimated peak of more than 7,000 — remains in southern Mexico, on foot and hundreds of miles from the border. A second, smaller group of 1,000 or so migrants is more than 200 miles behind the first caravan. A third band of about 500 from El Salvador has made it to Guatemala, and a fourth group of about 700 set out from the Salvadoran capital Wednesday.
Trump has nonetheless mounted an enormous show of force in response. The Pentagon said “more than 7,000” troops were being sent to the southwest border to support Customs and Border Protection agents, though troop numbers have been changing at a dizzying pace.
WATCH: Trump blames Democrats for migrant caravan ‘crisis’
Just last week officials were indicating that about 800 to 1,000 might be sent. On Monday, officials announced that about 5,200 were being deployed. The next day, the Air Force general running the operation said more than the initially announced total were going, and he pointedly rejected a news report that it could reach 14,000, saying that was “not consistent with what’s actually being planned.”
Just 24 hours later, Trump caught the Pentagon by surprise.
“As far as the caravan is concerned, our military is out,” Trump said Wednesday.
“We have about 5,800. We’ll go up to anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 military personnel on top of Border Patrol, ICE and everybody else at the border.”
Trump has rejected the idea he has been “fearmongering” and using the issue for political purposes, but his escalating rhetoric in the final days of the campaign season calls that denial into question. He also has said he plans an executive order to unilaterally end the constitutionally protected right of citizenship for children born to non-U.S. citizens.
Trump also tweeted a video Wednesday alleging Democrats were responsible for allowing a homicidal immigrant into the U.S. but provided no evidence supporting that claim.
In his Wednesday tweet, Trump highlighted the case of Luis Bracamontes, a twice-deported immigrant from Mexico sentenced to death in California for killing two police officers. The 53-second spot includes expletives uttered by Bracamontes during his trial as he professed regret at not killing more officials.
WATCH: U.S. to cut foreign aid as migrant caravan continues north
The video includes scenes of migrants moving toward the U.S. and asks ominously, “Who else would Democrats let in?”
It was reminiscent of the infamous “Willie Horton” ad used against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988 and condemned as racist. Horton, who was black, raped a woman while out of prison on a weekend furlough. As Massachusetts governor, Dukakis supported the furlough program. He lost to Republican George H.W. Bush.
— Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Zeke Miller and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.
–Jessica Vomiero contributed to this report.
© 2018 The Canadian Press