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How Trump is making it harder for asylum seekers

News & Commentary  |  By Peniel Ibe, Sep 13, 2019
Photo: AFSC / Pedro Rios

People fleeing violence or danger in their home countries should be welcomed with compassion – not confronted by overwhelming obstacles to seeking asylum. But the Trump administration has repeatedly imposed new restrictions on asylum seekers, making it even harder for people to claim protection in the United States.

Take action today: Tell Congress to protect asylum seekers! 

Here are some of the ways the administration has sought to dismantle the asylum system – and how these restrictions will hurt migrants and communities in the U.S.

Restricting who is eligible for asylum

Under U.S. law, an asylum seeker must prove a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a “particular social group.” The Trump administration has changed how these eligibility requirements are defined, drastically reducing the number of people who are eligible for asylum.

The administration has made these changes through the “self-referral authority” of the U.S. attorney general. Unlike other courts in the U.S., immigration courts are controlled by the Justice Department. As the head of the Justice Department, the attorney general has exercised a previously little-used authority to reopen and refer immigration cases to himself for a new decision, essentially rewriting long-standing legal precedent in the process.

Trump’s changes in eligibility requirements potentially affect groups including:

Family members: Under a July 2019 decision, being persecuted based on threats against a family member is no longer likely to qualify someone for asylum – dealing more roadblocks to families seeking safety in the United States. The policy essentially says that being a member of family does not count as being part of a “particular social group.”

Victims of domestic or gang violence: In June 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that most people fleeing domestic violence or gang violence would not qualify for asylum in the United States – a decision that affects thousands of people who have escaped horrific situations in their home countries.

Barring people who entered the U.S. between ports of entry

In November 2018, Trump announced an "asylum ban" that barred immigrants who enter the country between border checkpoints from claiming asylum – flagrantly disregarding U.S. and international law. 

Initially, separate court rulings allowed the asylum ban to move forward at the border states of New Mexico and Texas. But in September 2019, a federal court reinstated a nationwide block on the ban along the entire stretch of the southern border including California and Arizona.

Blocking migrants who don't apply for asylum before arriving at the southern border 

In July 2019, the Trump administration announced a rule change that prevents migrants from applying for asylum if they traveled through another country before reaching the U.S. if they didn’t apply in the previous country.

The rule was initially blocked by a federal judge, but in September 2019, the Supreme Court allowed the administration to implement the rule while it was still being challenged in court. The order effectively bars migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries (except Mexico) from seeking asylum if they show up at the U.S. southern border.

Slowing the processing of asylum claims

In early 2018, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced it would process recent affirmative applications for asylum before older ones. This “last in, first out” policy will add years to the time that asylum seekers who applied prior to 2018 have to wait for their interviews.

In March 2019, the administration announced that it would close 21 international immigration offices, a move that will further increase the backlog in applications to USCIS.

In July 2019, USCIS leadership encouraged USCIS employees to assist ICE in immigration enforcement instead of processing visa applications, which could further slow asylum processing.

Outsourcing asylum obligations to countries that can’t meet them

“Remain in Mexico” policy: In January 2019, the Trump administration began implementing a policy that forces Central Americans seeking asylum to return to Mexico – for an indefinite amount of time – while their claims are processed.

This “remain in Mexico” policy is a clear violation of both U.S. and international law, putting asylum seekers in danger and going directly against Congress’ intent to protect vulnerable people from persecution.

While the policy is being challenged in the courts, thousands of asylum seekers are being sent to Mexico to wait, where almost none have access to legal help with their claims.

Guatemala as a "safe third country": The Trump administration has entered a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, which would require asylum seekers passing through Guatemala to the U.S. to apply for asylum first in Guatemala. It’s unclear how this policy will be implemented until both governments release more details, but it was immediately denounced by U.S. and Guatemalan migrant rights groups.

The agreement could be a violation of U.S. refugee protection laws. What’s more, Guatemala cannot qualify as a “safe third country” as it lacks infrastructure to assist large numbers of refugees and grapples with severe sociopolitical, economic, and environmental issues.

Anti-asylum policies that have been struck down

The good news is that several of the administration’s attempts to undermine asylum have successfully been challenged and stopped in the courts, including:

  • Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, which prosecuted all adult immigrants who entered the U.S. between ports of entry and separated thousands of children from their families at the border, spurring nationwide protests.
  • Stripping asylum seekers of their right to an immigration court custody hearing, which determines whether they can be released from detention on bond – another way of holding them in detention indefinitely.
  • Arbitrary detention of asylum seekers even after they pass a “credible fear” interview and are awaiting a hearing on their asylum claim. A federal court ordered that each case should be reviewed for conditional release eligibility.

How we can resist Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda

The Trump administration has made every effort to dismantle the U.S. asylum system. Instead of endangering our communities with illegal and inhumane policies, U.S. authorities should concentrate their resources on quickly processing asylum requests and safeguarding human rights.

Here are some steps you can take to resist:

  1. Urge Congress to protect asylum seekers: Now is the time to stand with those seeking refuge in the United States. Demand that your legislators protect asylum seekers! 
  2. Defund hate: Tell Congress that we are a better nation when we accept with open arms those fleeing violence and poverty. Congress has the power to significantly cut the budgets of ICE and the Border Patrol – tell them to defund hate.
  3. Use good messaging: Here are some tips to help you talk about immigration to build support for more humane policies. Check out this AFSC resource for more research-based tips on how to talk about issues to create social change.
  4. Display love: Make your community more welcoming by printing and displaying AFSC posters – and use them at the next rally or protest you attend.

About the Author

Peniel is the policy associate at AFSC. She is interested in international development, humanitarian crisis management and public policy. She is an immigrant from Nigeria who recently relocated to the United States and is advocating for the rights of others like her.