Trump Administration Applies Sessions’ Strict Asylum Standards To ‘Credible Fear’ Process

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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Immigration authorities have implemented new guidelines for asylum officers that are likely to make it impossible for thousands of Central American migrants to prove they have a “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for handling affirmative asylum claims, has told asylum officers they must deny applications made on the basis of domestic or gang violence unless applicants can prove their home governments ordered the violence or were otherwise complicit in it.

The guidelines, which were separately reported Wednesday night by CNN and the Washington Times, further instruct officers to take into account whether the applicant illegally entered the U.S. to claim asylum. An illegal border crossing could factor into the decision to reject a claim, according to the new guidance.

The Trump administration has argued migrants who make fraudulent claims or otherwise aren’t eligible for asylum under U.S. law abuse the asylum process. It has pointed to the wide gap between the rate of positive “credible fear” findings — about 80 percent — and the rate of successful asylum petitions — about 20 percent for asylum seekers from Central America — as evidence that the system is gummed up with frivolous claims.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions first moved to tighten asylum standards in June when he ruled that immigration courts had erred in allowing certain victims of domestic violence to be considered part of a “particular social group” facing persecution. The ruling, which is binding on all immigration judges, says that violence of a personal nature, to include generalized gang violence, is not enough to meet the standard for a valid asylum claim under U.S. law. (RELATED: Sessions Tightens Asylum Standards, Says Domestic Violence Not Enough For Valid Claim)

“An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family, or other personal circumstances,” Sessions wrote. “Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

The new USCIS guidance essentially applies Sessions’ order to immigration judges to the agency’s asylum officers, who will use the stricter standards in initial “credible fear” interviews with asylum seekers. Since nearly all Central American asylum seekers say they are fleeing non-political violence, the higher bar is likely to result in a much lower rate of “credible fear” determination, and as a result, fewer asylum cases in immigration courts.

“Claims based on … the members’ vulnerability to harm of domestic violence or gang violence committed by non-government actors will not establish the basis for asylum, refugee status, or a credible or reasonable fear of persecution,” the guidance states, according to CNN.

Between 2008 and 2016, the number of annual asylum claims exploded by 1,700 percent, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The surge has been driven by a wave of migrants from Central America, mostly families and unaccompanied minors, who say they are fleeing intractable violence and poverty.

Until 2013, roughly one out of 100 arriving aliens claimed credible fear, according to DHS figures released in April. By 2017, that ratio had risen to roughly one out of 10 — meaning an unauthorized alien who arrived that year was 10 times as likely to claim credible fear as one who arrived just four years prior.

The backlog of affirmative asylum cases now stands at about 300,000.

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