Trump doesn’t need a wall — he has Jeff Sessions

Trump doesn’t need a wall — he has Jeff Sessions
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The Trump administration has systematically dismantled the right to seek asylum and turned the process at our southern border into a dystopian gauntlet that few can survive.

This became crystal-clear on Monday when Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed a new class of 44 immigration judges. He stated that their job was to “keep our federal laws functioning effectively, fairly and efficiently" and that they were critical to the Department of Justice “carr[ying] out its responsibilities under the INA.” Sessions described the actions of immigration lawyers as “water seeping through an earthen dam to get around the plain words of the INA.” 

This is ironic, because Sessions’s “zero tolerance” policy and his rewriting of asylum law are at odds with protections afforded asylum seekers under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).    

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I have witnessed personally this administration’s disregard for the rights and human dignity of asylum seekers. Earlier this summer, I took a team of law students and trauma specialists to the Karnes family detention center in Texas, where we worked alongside RAICES, the immigration nonprofit on the front lines in representing asylum seekers in family detention. We arrived on July 28, two days after the court deadline for reunification of separated families, and got a call from RAICES stating that they urgently needed us the next day to meet with dozens of fathers and sons who had just been reunited. Just before we arrived, the women and children previously detained at Karnes were bussed to the Dilley Detention Center in Texas to make room for fathers and sons.  

ICE planned to “comply” with the court order, reunify families, and then swiftly deport them.  The judge had issued a stay of removal, but RAICES feared that he was about to lift it. So we spent that first Sunday meeting with over 200 fathers and sons, ages 5-17, to sort out where they were in the process and to advise them of their rights.

Over the next days, we took their statements, and a picture of what they had suffered emerged. Many described their separation — usually within hours, often without a chance to say goodbye. Parents who had crossed without authorization were prosecuted for illegal entry. Most pled guilty on advice of their public defenders. After completing brief sentences, parents were transferred to detention centers where ICE gave them a “choice”: accept deportation and we’ll let you see your kid, or fight your case and you will remain separated.

Many of the fathers we saw had agreed to deportation. Others asked for asylum and had credible fear interviews. Parents described, in heart-wrenching detail, these interviews, many by phone without either asylum officer or interpreter physically present. They spoke of being unable to think straight, not understanding the officer’s questions, their hearts and heads pounding, losing their train of thought when the interpreter interrupted to make them slow down, not being able to tell their stories because their hearts were breaking. Under such circumstances, most were denied

Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump's nastiest break-ups: A look at the president's most fiery feuds Five takeaways from Barr's new powers in 'spying' probe Amash: Some of Trump's actions 'were inherently corrupt' MORE has moved quickly to impose his anti-immigrant agenda, well-aware that his time may be limited. The INA grants the attorney general broad powers. Although used sparingly in the past, regulations permit him to overturn a decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) by certifying it to himself.

This year alone Sessions has overturned four such decisions.  In June, in Matter of A-B-, he vacated a 2014 precedent decision recognizing that domestic violence may be a basis for asylum and signaled that most gang-based asylum claims would similarly fail. This Monday, he claimed that his decision “restores the way the law initially was enforced for decades” and that it was the immigration judges’ duty to carry it out. In fact, he is turning the clock back over 20 years, disregarding important advances in asylum protection.  

Yet despite Jeff Sessions’s claims that he is restoring “the original intent and purpose of the INA,” many of these policies are at odds with its plain language. INA § 208(a)(1) states that “Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival . . . ), … may apply for asylum.” This means that asylum seekers have a right to request asylum at the border or in the United States, regardless of how or where they enter.

Sessions claims that the American people believe “that persons who want to come here should file their claims and wait their turn.” Asylum seekers, however, can only apply for asylum at the border or within the United States. There is no asylum visa. They cannot “wait their turn” and apply in their home countries. The U.N. Refugee Convention prohibits contracting states from imposing “penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees” who present themselves without delay to the authorities. It is the Justice Department’s “zero tolerance” policy that violates the plain language of the INA.

The 1980 Refugee Act codified our international obligations and created procedures for seeking asylum. In 1996, amendments to the INA created expedited removal for migrants without proper documents, but provided an escape valve for asylum-seekers, who got a credible fear interview before an asylum officer and, if they failed their CFIs, a brief review before an immigration judge. Congress intended this to be a low threshold to screen out baseless claims. Those who pass are placed into regular proceedings.

The Trump administration, however, is rewriting U.S. asylum law and revamping the credible fear process to prevent most Central Americans from escaping expedited removal. Sessions claims that credible fear reviews have “skyrocketed’ and that many asylum seekers are taking advantage of the process by “saying a few simple words – claiming a fear of return.” These screenings, however, are part of U.S. law. Faithfully executing the laws means following all U.S. law, not just those provisions that further the administration’s restrictionist agenda. 

Lauren Gilbert, Esq., is professor of law at St. Thomas University School of Law, where she teaches immigration law, family law and constitutional law.