Trump administration drafts plan to raise asylum bar, speed deportations

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 By Julia Edwards Ainsley WASHINGTON 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 in order to ease strain on the courts and
reduce the number of immigrants allowed to stay in the United
States, often for years, while they await a hearing. 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 crack down on immigration
and tighten border security, a cornerstone of his election
campaign and a top priority of his first month in office. The guidelines are contained in two draft memos signed by
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and currently under
review by the White House, according to two people familiar with
them. The memos also outlined plans for greatly expanding the
categories of people that immigration agents target for
deportation, and gives them wide discretion in deciding who to
deport. Previously, recent arrivals and convicted criminals were the
prime targets. The new plan would include migrants who have been
charged but not convicted of crimes, and would also apply to
illegal immigrants who have been in the country for many years. The memos also call for quickly hiring 10,000 more
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents as well as 5,000 more
border patrol agents. The DHS declined to comment for this story, referring
questions to the White House, which did not respond to a request
for comment. WHAT IS "CREDIBLE FEAR"? 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
USCIS. 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
judge." 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
rejected. COMPLICATED LOGISTICS 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
possible." 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. (Additional reporting by Kieran Murray)



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