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Immigration 101: What is Asylum?


American values and tradition, especially since the Holocaust, was founded on welcoming people fleeing war, violence, and persecution. But in recent years, the U.S. has strayed away from these values. Currently, the United States only accepts fewer than one percent of worldwide refugees, and many other countries take in far more refugees than we do..

Part of Trump’s immigration crackdown includes toughening laws to make it more difficult to apply for or be granted asylum in the United States. The Trump Administration seeks to limit the number of people claiming to be political refugees, and wants to increase the number of reasons an asylum seeker might be deemed inadmissible.

Critics say Trump’s changes tear at the fabric of America’s core beliefs.

A person may seek asylum protection because they have suffered persecution or fear they will face persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. The National Immigrant Justice Center, which litigates gender-based asylum claims in immigration courts, believes that gender can also form the basis of a particular “social group” and that individuals who have suffered or fear violence-based on their gender should be eligible for asylum.

Unlike refugees, who may only seek status from outside of the United States, asylum-seekers begin their process either at the U.S. border or within the U.S. The waiting period for a person seeking asylum to be recognized as a “refugee” may take two to five years. While they wait, they can be paroled in the U.S., but must wait six months before obtaining a work permit. They also are not entitled to the same support social services provided to refugees.

Once a person has been designated a “refugee” either through the United Nations (outside U.S. borders) or within the U.S. through the asylum-seeker process, seeking asylum and permanent status is no easy feat.

Trump’s Assault on the Asylum System

Here are roadblocks the Trump Administration has enacted making asylum harder:

  • In August 2017, the Trump Administration terminated the Obama-era Central American Minors (CAM) refugee program to protect unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These Northern Triangle countries are ranked as the most violent countries in the world. Trump proposes stripping children of protections so they can be turned back at the border or quickly removed.
  • In September 2017, Trump capped the number of refugees allowed into the United States in 2018 to 45,000 — the lowest level since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980.
  • In January 2018, a federal court ruled that unaccompanied minors have no constitutional right to a court-appointed lawyer to represent them in U.S. immigration proceedings.
  • In February 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that asylum seekers in immigration detention do not have a legal right to periodic hearings to determine if they should be released on bond, and could be detained indefinitely.
  • In February 2018, USCIS issued new lesson plans for screening interviews for the first step to asylum, narrowing the qualifications for “credible fear,” as part of Trump’s attempt to rewrite immigration policy.
  • To discourage asylum seekers, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is separating parents from their children at the border. A mother and her three children fleeing death threats in El Salvador were place in separate detention centers, and a 7-year-old Congolese girl was separated 2,000 miles apart from her mother. DHS claimed maternity doubts, but waited four months to administer a DNA test, and took action only after the ACLU filed suit. Migrant advocacy groups have identified hundreds more cases.
  • Recently halted, Trump tried blocking access to abortion services for undocumented, pregnant minors who have been detained in federal immigration custody while claiming asylum. Scott Lloyd, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, is required by law to act with the asylum seekers’ interests in mind. The Trump Administration has determined the “best interests” of minors in their care includes denying abortion requests. Lloyd has denied at least one request for an abortion from a girl who said she had been raped. The Migration Policy Institute reports that 80 percent of Central American women and children traveling through the U.S.-Mexico border are raped.
  • Trump seeks to allow families to be detained for longer periods while awaiting asylum decisions
  • In a rare and unprecedented exercise of power, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is attempting to limit when judges can grant continuances, who qualifies for asylum in the United States, and end administrative closure, which allows judges to put deportation proceedings on hold indefinitely. Critics say the changes would threaten due process for immigrants, and the integrity of immigration courts.
  • Sessions is seeking to pressure immigration judges by implementing a quota system tied to their annual performance review.
  • Women fleeing domestic violence overseas could lose the right to claim asylum in the United States, pending a ruling by Sessions.
  • In March 2018, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rescinded the practice of automatically releasing pregnant women from immigration detention custody.
  • In March 2018, Sessions eliminated a requirement that asylum seekers get a full hearing before an immigration judge. Now, asylum petitions can be rejected without a full hearing if immigration judges believe they appear to be fraudulent or unlikely to succeed.
  • Human Rights First reports that in over-applying the term “fraud,” the Trump Administration is targeting refugees who are legally eligible, punishing them, and returning them to countries to face persecution.
  • U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) are accused of lying to hundreds of asylum seekers fleeing violence and turning them away from the border. One person was incorrectly told, “Donald Trump just signed new laws saying there is no asylum for anyone,” according to a lawsuit.
  • Federal laws and lawsuits protecting children prohibit the prolonged detention or quick deportation of asylum-seekers. Trump has repeatedly said he seeks to close such “terrible loopholes.”
  • Torture survivors seeking asylum are unable to obtain a forensic evaluation needed to prove harm suffered before arriving in the U.S., due to the Trump’s Administration’s policies of detaining asylum-seekers by default.
  • In March 2018, civil rights organizations filed a class-action lawsuit over the prolonged detention of asylum seekers, alleging Trump is illegally jailing asylum seekers with credible cases in an attempt to deter them and others from seeking refuge in the United States.

As Sessions continues to rally against asylum, a hard road lies ahead for asylum-seekers in the United States.

Asylum cases

Here are examples highlighting the difficulties encountered by asylum-seekers:

  • When I am found dead, it will be on your conscience,” a Mexican asylum seeker fleeing violence told a Border Patrol agent before being turned away at the border. Her charred human skeleton was later found in the front seat of an incinerated vehicle after she was forced back to her home country. More than a dozen women reportedly expressed their fears to Border Patrol, but were never asked required questions, and instead were ignored, mocked, or sexually propositioned before being deported into harm’s way. United Nations international law known as non-refoulement, or non-return, forbids the removal of asylum seekers to countries where they are likely to be tortured or killed.
  • A Ghana man has been seeking asylum after an anti-gay gang attacked his partner — who outed him — and being targeted by police-backed vigilantes. He has been stuck in a South Texas immigration detention for over two years while ICE withheld a key piece of evidence that could have freed him.
  • More than 100 Iranian Christians and members of other religions awaiting final U.S. approval for asylum, have been stranded in Austria for over a year. Eighty Iranians who traveled to Vienna expecting resettlement in the United States, have been denied asylum in America due to Trump’s travel ban. Restricting travel from eight predominantly Muslim countries, the Muslim ban bars citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad, and North Korea from entering the United States, along with some groups of people from Venezuela.
  • A journalist from Togo who was critical of the oppressive 50-year rule of the government in the West Africa nation, has been separated from his wife and 9-year-old daughter in an agonizing wait of several years for asylum. USCIS recently removed a helpful online bulletin detailing applicants’ asylum interview dates.

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