Trump administration makes a mockery of asylum system

Trump administration makes a mockery of asylum system

The Trump administration has been contemptuous of refugees and asylum seekers from its earliest days. In recent weeks, as White House adviser Stephen MillerStephen MillerOvernight Defense: Trump hits Iranian central bank with sanctions | Trump meeting with Ukrainian leader at UN | Trump touts relationship with North Korea's Kim as 'best thing' for US California trip shows Trump doesn't always hate the media Trump court pick sparks frustration for refusing to answer questions MORE has reportedly exerted greater influence in the White House, we have witnessed a dismantling of protections our country has held dear for decades.

On May 7, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a stay on a legal challenge to an administration policy that forces asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while awaiting an immigration court hearing on their claims in the United States. This is just one step of the litigation, and the federal court challenge will continue. But in the interim, thousands of people who believed in the hope the United States has traditionally offered will be returned to Mexico’s most dangerous cities, without being asked about the serious risks they face while waiting. Make no mistake, people will likely die because of this policy.  

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Meanwhile, the administration is launching another plan that is antithetical to the promise of protection offered by longstanding U.S. and international asylum law. The newest plan is to have Border Patrol agents conduct the initial screening interviews with asylum seekers. Yesterday, The Washington Post confirmed that 10 U.S. Border Patrol agents had already volunteered to conduct these interviews. As its website says, the Border Patrol’s “traditional mission is to enforce immigration laws and to detect, interdict and apprehend those who attempt to illegally enter or smuggle people or contraband across U.S. borders between official ports of entry.”

Credible fear interviews require officers trained in international human rights law and domestic asylum law to determine whether the asylum seeker has a “significant possibility” of meeting the asylum standard. As Human Rights First has said, assigning Border Patrol agents to this duty is like asking the security guard in a hospital to triage incoming patients in an emergency ward. In fact, this new plan is worse because these “security guards” are already being sued for illegally turning away the exact people whose asylum claims they will now be screening.

The administration has not offered any operational justification for replacing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers — those hired and trained in the complexities of asylum law — with agents from a frontline law enforcement agency. In fact, despite increased funding, the Border Patrol has not been able to hire enough agents to keep up with its own demands and has sent U.S. military personnel to the border to perform some of its functions.

The only reason to shift the critical responsibility for these initial screenings from trained experts in asylum law to those with a law enforcement mission is to find agents willing to carry out the administration’s political will. The Border Patrol union endorsed Trump for president, and Trump has lavished praise on Border Patrol agents while vilifying the asylum system, recently calling asylum “a con job.” 

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Even after carrying out the separation of parents from children at the border, the former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenKirstjen Nielsen drops out of Atlantic Media event after liberal backlash Pence taps former DHS spokeswoman as his new press secretary DHS officials called lawmaker visit to migrant detention facility a 'Hill stunt' MORE was recently ousted for pointing out that certain administration plans violate the law. The administration is now seeking to remove asylum officers from one of their core duties because they have been correctly applying the law: allowing those who have a credible fear of persecution to pursue protection in the United States.

For an administration that claims to believe in the rule of law, it has shown little interest in following domestic and international asylum law. If Border Patrol agents are willing to slam the door on asylum seekers, where asylum officers would not, the administration may win political points with its base. In the end, the United States loses, as our executive branch simply stops following laws it doesn’t like. As the number of displaced persons around the world rises to its highest levels since World War II, if the United States finds ways to sidestep its obligations under international law, other countries will do the same. With each new affront to our moral obligations as a nation, the “lamp beside the golden door” held high by the Statue of Liberty fades towards darkness.

Anna Gallagher is the executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.

Victoria Neilson is managing attorney in CLINIC’s Defending Vulnerable Populations Program.