From slashed refugee admissions caps to severe restrictions on asylum applications, the Trump administration made it harder for people fleeing violence and persecution to obtain asylum in the United States. Ramped-up detention rates have kept thousands of migrants in overcrowded facilities, and harsh “zero-tolerance” measures — like the separation of families — were implemented to deter people from attempting to come to the U.S.
Among the administration’s most controversial measures was its “Remain in Mexico” policy, officially known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Under MPP, which the Supreme Court in March 2020 ruled could continue, asylum-seekers are forced to wait in Mexico while their cases proceed, forcing them to stay in dangerous locations, with limited access to attorneys and information about upcoming court dates. In our ongoing investigation of the implementation of this policy, we obtained records showing that while devising MPP the administration had scrapped a question asking migrants whether they feared being returned to Mexico, requiring them to affirmatively bring up such a fear on their own.
Additional policy changes included the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to give Border Patrol enforcement agents the authority to conduct credible fear interviews. Those interviews have traditionally been conducted by asylum officers within Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) who have undergone more extensive training, and experts expressed concern that Border Patrol agents will not be qualified to handle sensitive interviews or make nuanced determinations that impact asylum proceedings.
Other restrictions were put in place limiting the number of asylum-seekers who can be processed at ports of entry each day, and requiring migrants applying for asylum to have first applied in another country, such as Mexico, that they passed through on their way to the U.S. And agreements signed with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador resulted in asylum-seekers from the latter two countries being deported to Guatemala.
But even migrants who can make it to their court dates are facing obstacles from the U.S. justice system. In April 2019, then-Attorney General William Barr issued an order directing immigration judges to deny some migrants a chance to post bail, keeping them in jail while they waited to make their cases in court. Later that summer, Barr ruled that migrants fearing persecution because of threats against family members would no longer qualify for asylum, in a reversal of a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals. Meanwhile, the resignations of a number of immigration judges over the Trump administration’s harsh policies exacerbated the backlog in the Executive Office for Immigration Review, and April 2020 brought the news that the administration appeared to be using the coronavirus pandemic to block thousands from applying for asylum.
American Oversight’s investigation of the Trump administration’s hardline anti-asylum measures resulted in the release of hundreds of pages of public records, including documents related to the Remain in Mexico policy and communications showing DHS officials referring to a report on asylum decisions as the “‘Hunger Games’ report.” Other emails between anti-immigration activists and DHS officials about family separation include concerns over lack of proper language assistance for asylum-seekers and over allegations of children with disabilities being separated from parents without proper care.
We are continuing to investigate the implementation of these policies, communications with anti-immigration groups, and the growing backlog of asylum cases to shed light on some of the administration’s harshest measures.
In March 2020, American Oversight sued the Department of Homeland Security for records related to the transfer of responsibility for conducting credible fear interviews from USCIS asylum officers to CBP enforcement agents. Records sought include training materials and official guidance, as well as statistics on determinations from those interviews.