Legislators: Trump admin. gutting asylum process in New England

Boston agents to handle cases at southern border by phone

SENS. ED MARKEY and Elizabeth Warren and US Rep. Ayanna Pressley are accusing the Trump administration of gutting the immigration asylum process in New England by directing the agency’s Boston employees to work on cases arising at the nation’s southwest border.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal lawmakers said the shift of resources “will mean that 40,000 pending affirmative asylum cases in New England will be essentially frozen.”

Affirmative asylum cases typically involve people who arrived in the country legally and then apply for asylum within a year, claiming it is unsafe for them to return home. Asylum officers interview the applicants and determine if their claims are valid.

Border asylum cases have the added component of immigrants crossing the border and immediately requesting asylum. Those applicants are screened by asylum officers to determine if the applicant has a “credible fear.” Those who meet that standard are sent to an immigration judge for a full hearing.

On August 15, US Citizenship and Immigration Services notified attorneys via email that, effective August 19, most interviewing officers in the Boston and Newark offices would be re-assigned to work on the cases stemming from crossings at the southwest border.

Pressley, Warren, and Markey say the officers will conduct credible fear and reasonable fear interviews in-person or by telephone and, as a result, no new interviews will be scheduled in the Boston office and only a small number will be scheduled in the Newark office.

A spokeswoman for the immigration agency said on Wednesday that the Boston officers will be conducting interviews by phone, and that no one will be sent to the southern border.  The spokeswoman said Boston officers are temporarily not scheduling affirmative asylum cases for interview, but she said “they continue to work a number of post-interview backlog cases and they are still scheduling expedited interview requests on a case-by-case basis.”

Boston University law lecturer and attorney Sarah Sherman-Stokes says the “post-interview” backlog being referred to are just the ones where the asylum seeker has already been interviewed. But for the people waiting for an interview? “Nothing is going to happen,” she said.

In Massachusetts, the time frame for getting an asylum interview was already long. Sherman-Stokes said she has one set of clients who have waited for an interview since December 2017 and another client that has been waiting since March 2018.

“The government wants us to think that we have to choose between the availability of asylum at the border or in the interior of the United States. But they’re wrong,” she said. “The statute doesn’t make such distinctions – noncitizens are entitled to apply for asylum at the border, at ports of entry, and within the US. For that statutory right to have any meaning, we cannot close asylum here in New England.”

She and the Massachusetts lawmakers say the administration was well aware of the growing demand for asylum at the border, but did little to prepare for the influx.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Markey, Warren, and Pressley accused the Trump administration of compounding the humanitarian crises at the border by expanding detention facilities for migrants, and restricting the claims for which migrants can seek asylum. They also called on the federal immigration agency to clarify the methods by which it made its decision to re-assign the officers’ caseloads, asking for a response by September 10.

The Trump administration has adopted a hardline stance on immigration enforcement nationwide, including changing long-time asylum policies and instituting the “Remain in Mexico plan,” which requires migrants seeking admission to the US to be sent to Mexico for the duration of their immigration court proceedings. The number of individuals channeled into that program as of the end of July is up to 26,000, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research center at Syracuse University.

The spokeswoman for the immigration agency said the Boston office has less than 20 employees in total. The agency says the Boston office will resume affirmative asylum scheduling in Boston as soon as possible as it monitors its resources.