Trump administration eyes asylum crackdown

The Trump administration is seeking ways to make it harder for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to receive asylum, in part by forcing them to meet stricter requirements proving they have a credible fear of returning to their home countries, according to a senior administration official.

The possible changes are part of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrumps light 97th annual National Christmas Tree Trump to hold campaign rally in Michigan 'Don't mess with Mama': Pelosi's daughter tweets support following press conference comments MORE’s efforts to revamp the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over frustration with the spike of migrant families and unaccompanied minors crossing the border.

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Under the current rules, migrants seeking asylum must pass a credible-fear test administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to demonstrate that it would be unsafe for them to return home in order to advance the application process. Administration officials argue that migrants are taking advantage of asylum rules to remain in the U.S.

Proposals being considered include matching credible-fear claims to conditions in migrants' home countries to see if they can be relocated internally and curbing the practice of handing out employment documents to applicants, which an official said creates “a giant magnet factor.”

“The biggest issue in this is getting a hold of the credible-fear system to get much-needed integrity to better vet claims,” said an official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, adding that the law allows “a more rigorous evaluation of credible fear claims that hasn’t been done.” 

The official said some Trump advisers have pushed USCIS to make changes to asylum rules for six months, but no action has been taken.

“The bottleneck at USCIS has been particularly severe,” the official said. 

The revelation comes days after Trump ousted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump puts Kushner in charge of overseeing border wall construction: report Hillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Minority lawmakers call out Google for hiring former Trump DHS official MORE, amid a possible major housecleaning at the department. USCIS Director Francis Cissna is one top official said to be in the White House’s crosshairs, as well as the agency's legal counsel.

The official said certain segments of USCIS have an institutional “bias” to grant benefits, rather than deny them, and that the administration wants to shift the culture toward “protecting U.S. workers and citizens rather than seeing the applicant as the client.”

That shift, the official said, “can best be dealt with through management issues.”

The official added that there is a belief that many of the administration’s “core priorities” have “been either moving too slowly or have been moving the wrong direction for a while within certain agencies at DHS.”

Kevin McAleenan, Trump’s choice to lead DHS on an interim basis, has the “full, complete and total support” of the White House “to build a team and have a fresh start to get this done,” according to the official.

Trump said on Tuesday that he is not “looking to” take other drastic measures on immigration, like resuming family separations, even though he argued the practice was effective. He also bristled at the notion he is making sweeping changes at DHS, saying, “I never said I was cleaning house.”

After the president spoke, the official repeated that “we’re not ‘cleaning house’ at DHS” and said that changes at the department will not necessarily including sweeping staff changes.

But frustration with DHS has been bubbling for months at the White House and the personnel reshuffle is seen as empowering top Trump immigration adviser Stephen Miller, who has long argued the administration can and should do more to impose stricter immigration policies.

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NBC News reported that Miller also wants Customs and Border Protection agents instead of USCIS personnel to conduct asylum interviews, believing that it will result in fewer migrants passing the initial credible-fear test.

The administration’s efforts to crack down on asylum claims have repeatedly run into legal problems. A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked Trump’s policy of keeping some asylum seekers in Mexico while their cases are considered.

Trump’s advisers have become exasperated with the asylum process, pointing to government data showing that 90 percent of people seeking asylum pass their credible-fear interview, but fewer than 10 percent eventually receive asylum.

Migrants who pass the interview typically wait months or years for a court hearing, either in detention facilities or outside of custody in the U.S. while waiting for a date before a judge.

An uptick in asylum seekers crossing the border, in addition to families and unaccompanied minors protected by certain laws and court rulings making the trek, have overwhelmed the detention and court system and prompted the White House to push for stricter policies.

Democrats and immigrant-rights groups say their proposed solutions are too harsh and violate laws intended to protect migrants fleeing violence, persecution and poverty in their home countries and any policy change could spark further legal challenges.

The senior administration official said other actions are being considered to challenge the legal framework protecting migrant families and children as well.

A possible regulation challenging the so-called Flores settlement agreement, which would honor the conditions in which children must be held but would allow them to be kept for longer than the 20-day limit, is on the table, the official said.

The official acknowledged the policy would likely be blocked by a federal judge, but said it could spark a legal battle over the settlement that could reach the Supreme Court, where the administration would argue it could be overturned.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement is also weighing a new program called “binary choice,” in which migrant families would be given a choice whether to waive their rights under the Flores settlement and remain detained together while their case is processed or have the children released from custody after 20 days while the parents remain in detention.

The proposal drew widespread condemnation from immigrant-rights groups when it was first floated last year.

The official said the plan is “something that ICE is working on but is not ripe, really, for White House consideration.”

--Updated at 2:43 p.m.