June 20, 2019 – On the eve of World Refugee Day, the acting head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Ken Cuccinelli, emailed asylum officers lamenting the country’s “abused” asylum system and calling on them to help “stem the crisis and better secure the homeland.” The message to get in line and deny more asylum claims is clear.
The memo is yet another example of the Trump administration’s ongoing attacks on the asylum system, including then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ June 2018 decision that “generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum.”
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Cuccinelli’s email warns USCIS officers that he finds the gap between the greater number of asylum seekers whom they found to have a credible fear of persecution, and the smaller number ultimately granted asylum by immigration judges, a problem. That gap, however, exists because the standard of the “credible fear” that a newly arriving asylum seeker has to meet, is appropriately set as a minimal safety net to prevent the irreparable harm that could be done if people whose lives might be threatened in their home countries, were summarily returned. Those who are found not to meet it, are deported straightaway without a hearing. Those who do meet it, are given a formal removal proceeding before an immigration judge, where a higher “well-founded fear of persecution” standard is used. Even then, asylum seekers are usually detained and face other challenges to obtaining a fair hearing.
In 2018 Sessions broadly pushed immigration judges to dismiss legitimate grounds that many women and children have for seeking asylum. Now Cuccinelli seeks to intimidate his employees within the asylum officer corps by implying their job performance will be assessed according to their contribution to stemming what he calls a migration crisis, rather than their equally important responsibility to ensure due process and respect the rights of asylum seekers.
World Refugee Day used to be a time when US officials would proclaim refugee protection as a proud reflection of American values. This World Refugee Day is marred by a US official sending an internal directive to grease the deportation skids and remove the protection brakes that would prevent refugees from being shoved back into the hands of their persecutors.
Bill Frelick is Director, Refugee Rights Program, Human Rights Watch