February 19, 2017 / 4:47 AM / 2 years ago

Trump administration drafts plan to raise asylum bar, speed deportations

    By Julia Edwards Ainsley
    WASHINGTON, Feb 18 (Reuters) - The Department of Homeland
Security has prepared new guidance for immigration agents aimed
at speeding up deportations by denying asylum claims earlier in
the process. 
    The new guidelines, contained in a draft memo dated February
17 but not yet sent to field offices, directs agents to only
pass applicants who have a good chance of ultimately getting
asylum, but does not give specific criteria for establishing
credible fear of persecution if sent home.  
    The guidance instructs asylum officers to "elicit all
relevant information" in determining whether an applicant has
“credible fear” of persecution if returned home, the first
obstacle faced by migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border requesting
asylum. (Graphic: tmsnrt.rs/2m4aPAs)
    Three sources familiar with the drafting of the guidance
said the goal of the new instructions is to raise the bar on
initial screening.  
    The administration's plan is to leave wide discretion to
asylum officers by allowing them to determine which applications
have a "significant possibility" of being approved by an
immigration court, the sources said.
    The guidance was first reported and posted on the internet
by McClatchy news organization.
    In 2015, just 18 percent of asylum applicants whose cases
were ruled on by immigration judges were granted asylum,
according to the Justice Department. Applicants from countries
with a high rate of political persecution have a higher chance
of winning their asylum cases. 
    A tougher approach to asylum seekers would be an element of
President Donald Trump's promise to crackdown on immigration and
tighten border security, a cornerstone of his election campaign
and a top priority of his first month in office.
    The DHS declined to comment for this story, referring
questions to the White House, which did not respond to a request
for comment.
    Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, an applicant must
generally demonstrate "a well-founded fear of persecution on
account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a
particular social group, or political opinion."  
    Immigration lawyers say any applicants who appear to meet
that criteria in their initial interviews should be allowed to
make their cases in court. They oppose encouraging asylum
officers to take a stricter stance on questioning claims and
rejecting applications. 
    Interviews to assess credible fear are conducted almost
immediately after an asylum request is made, often at the border
or in detention facilities by immigration agents or asylum
officers, and most applicants easily clear that hurdle. Between
July and September of 2016, U.S. asylum officers accepted nearly
88 percent of the claims of credible fear, according to U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Services data.
    Asylum seekers who fail the credible fear test can be
quickly deported unless they file an appeal. Currently, those
who pass the test are eventually released and allowed to remain
in the United States awaiting hearings, which are often
scheduled years into the future because of a backlog of more
than 500,000 cases in immigration courts.
    Between October 2015 and April 2016, nearly 50,000 migrants
claimed credible fear, 78 percent of whom were from Honduras, El
Salvador, Guatemala or Mexico, according to statistics from
    The number of migrants from those three countries who passed
credible fear and went to court to make their case for asylum
rose sharply between 2011 and 2015, from 13,970 claims to
34,125, according to data from the Justice Department. 
    Former border patrol chief Mike Fisher credits that trend to
advice from immigration lawyers who know "asylum officers are
going to err on the side of caution and refer most cases to a
    The new guidance on asylum seekers is for border personnel
implementing Trump's Jan. 25 executive order on tightening U.S.
border security. 
    Among other measures, the president’s directive calls for
expediting eligibility claims of those attempting to stay in the
United States and promptly deporting those whose claims are
    Some immigration officers familiar with the draft guidance
say they are concerned that a rapid increase in deportations of
asylum seekers could strain overcrowded detention facilities and
create transportation problems. 
    Deportations take time and coordination, even when
immigrants are quickly targeted for expulsion. U.S. officials
must get approval from a deportee’s home country before
repatriation can take place, and transportation can be
complicated and expensive. Immigrants from non-contiguous
countries are flown home by plane, while Mexicans are often
bused across the border.  
    Homeland Security personnel who worked on the guidance say
they hope to expand detention space by at least 8,000 beds. The
money to pay for that would require congressional sign-off.
    The extra beds, they say, would further the president's
goal, expressed in his executive order on border security, of
ending the practice known as "catch and release" in which
migrants, including asylum seekers, are freed pending a court
hearing. The new guidance calls for expanding detention, but
acknowledges that ending the practice "may not be immediately
    A congressional aide familiar with the administration’s
plans said DHS is considering expanding its contracts with
private prison companies like GEO Group         and CoreCivic
       , which currently hold most immigrant detainees.
    Immigrants rights advocates say they fear that raising the
bar on the credible fear test could screen out migrants with a
rightful claim to asylum, because asylum officers may dismiss
cases that could make it through court if the asylum seeker were
given legal counsel, said Marielena Hincapie, executive director
of the National Immigration Law Center.    
    Asylum applicants have the right to appeal denials of
credible fear claims and may request to see a judge to assert
their claim to be in the United States for other reasons, such
as family ties. For that reason, raising the bar on credible
fear might not deter asylum seekers as much as the Trump
administration hopes, said former border patrol head Fisher. 

 (Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley, editing by Sue Horton,
Ross Colvin and Michael Perry)
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