Immigrant rights attorneys are raising concerns that the Trump administration is quietly attempting to abolish the U.S. asylum system by making it more difficult for refugees to convince officials that they face persecution or violence in their home countries.
The Guardian reported Wednesday that since July, the percentage of refugees at the country's largest immigrant family detention center who have passed their "credible fear" interviews has plummeted from 97 percent to just 10 percent.
"What we're seeing in the credible fear process is one part of a systemic effort by this administration to end asylum."
—Elora Mukherjee, Columbia University Immigrants' Rights Clinic
The trend represents an "unprecedented drop" in approved asylum claims at South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, The Guardian reported, suggesting a major shift in how the U.S. government now views the internationally-recognized right to seek asylum.
Asylum-seekers who receive approval after their credible fear screenings are then able to appear before an immigration judge for their asylum hearings; those who do not can be deported within days.
Elora Mukherjee, an attorney at Columbia University's Immigrants' Rights Clinic, said the change seems to be the result of "secret policies and procedures that have not been made public."
"This administration is trying to end asylum in the United States," Mukherjee told The Guardian. "What we're seeing in the credible fear process is one part of a systemic effort by this administration to end asylum."
Plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the Immigrants' Rights Clinic in September said they were interviewed multiple times about traumatic events that forced them to flee their home countries—a pattern which went against standard protocol for credible fear screenings. Such changes to the asylum process would have been made illegally without the approval of Congress, The Guardian reported.
Joel Hernàndez of the Refugee Trauma Initiative tweeted that significant changes to the asylum process amounts to "non-transparent rights denial."
“What we’re seeing in the credible fear process is one part of a systemic effort by this administration to end #asylum… based on secret policies & procedures that have not been made public by the administration.”
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Signature non-transparent rights denial.https://t.co/wvu3hShhQW
— joel hernàndez (@joelhdz) November 13, 2019
Since 1996, asylum-seekers have undergone a credible fear interview given by asylum officers.
In September, the Los Angeles Times reported that President Donald Trump had unveiled a pilot program at family detention centers, under which credible fear interviews would be conducted by Border Patrol agents rather than asylum officers who are "trained and geared toward refugee protection."
Buzzfeed News reported last week on another change to the asylum process: In another pilot program unveiled in recent weeks, Mexicans applying for asylum have only 48 hours to prepare their immigration cases, a change which expedites the time in which they can be deported.
"The short time frame and the limited ability to communicate with counsel ensures that less Mexican asylum-seekers will pass the initial credible fear interview," Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute told Buzzfeed. "It's another brick in the virtual wall they are creating to block asylum-seekers from entering the U.S."
The Guardian's report came a day after Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) obtained a manifesto by a former asylum officer in which the anonymous writer condemned Trump's approach to the asylum process.
The former officer wrote that the president's overhaul of the system—including his "Remain in Mexico" policy under which asylum-seekers are deported to Mexico to await their immigration hearings; attempts to deport refugees to Honduras; and a proposal to charge them $50 to apply for asylum—are "clearly designed to further this administration's racist agenda of keeping Hispanic and Latino populations from entering the United States."