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Asylum-Seekers Now Face Tougher Odds At U.S. Border

Under a new policy laid out by the Trump administration, victims of domestic abuse and gang violence who are seeking safety in the U.S. can now be turned away and even separated from their children.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services sent a policy memo to its field officers that detailed how to apply Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ controversial suggestion that judges and asylum officers should “generally” deny asylum claims that involve domestic or gang violence.

Immigration attorneys are already saying they have seen a shift USCIS’ practices. According to one attorney helping clients at the Port Isabel Detention Center near Los Fresnos, Texas, most of the mothers who have been separated from their children and detained at the facility have had their claims for asylum denied.

Sessions new guidelines to limit the grounds for asylum is just the latest move by the Trump administration to deter, deport, and turn away more migrants who attempt to cross the border. These guidelines state that victims of crimes carried out by private actors, including gangs or domestic partners, generally shouldn’t be eligible to seek asylum in the U.S. It also stated that asylum applicants have to prove their government did not just fail to help them but that their government “condoned” the actions or “demonstrated an inability” to protect them. Under Sessions’ instructions, immigration judges and asylum officers are asked to consider if applicants could live somewhere else in their home country instead, before deciding to grant them relief to stay in the U.S.

The policy memo also alerts asylum officers assessing which cases should go before an immigration judge that “few gang-based or domestic-violence claims” will merit approval for asylum. Citing a 1987 Board of Immigration Appeals decision, the policy suggests that officers can consider if a person entered the U.S. illegally and whether that detail should “weigh against” their asylum claim.

Immigrant rights advocates are afraid the new directions given by Sessions will encourage asylum officers to turn away more asylum applicants. According to Greg Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, “USCIS through this guidance is effectively pre-judging domestic violence and gang cases.”

Anwen Hughes, deputy legal director at the nonprofit foundation, Human Rights First, said the screening for credible fear is supposed to be a lower bar than for asylum and is intended to act as a net to catch all people who might be eligible. Hughes said, “Our concern is that this is going to result in cases not seeing the light of day in court because they’re going to be cut off at the pass as the result of this guidance.”

Michael Bars, spokesman for USCIS said the policy would “protect the integrity of our immigration system and help restore the faithful execution of our laws.” Bars stated that “grounds for qualifying for asylum have greatly expanded far beyond what Congress originally intended.” He also added, “Many petitioners understand this, know how to exploit our system and are able to enter the U.S., avoid removal and remain in the country.”

Bars’ statements echoed the position of President Trump, Attorney General Sessions, and other administration officials who have long suggested that asylum law has been too broadly applied. According to them, too many people were being given the opportunity to seek asylum and too many applicants lied about their circumstances in order to gain entry into the U.S.

Despite Sessions’ decision, immigrant rights advocates argue that many victims of domestic and gang violence are still eligible for asylum. Similarly, advocates believe that people who cross the border illegally are also eligible to seek asylum.

Speaking about the new guidelines from the Trump administration, Chen said “The administration has now turned crossing the border in search of protection into a reason to deny asylum in violation of both U.S. immigration law and international law, which guarantee the right to seek asylum for those who come to our nation’s borders, even if they crossed our borders illegally. This means a possible death sentence for those who fled from violence and persecution.”

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