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Trump Wants to Train Border Patrol to Conduct Asylum Interviews

The new plan could mean more asylum claims will be denied, according to advocates.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent talks with detained migrants at the border of the United States and Mexico on March 31st, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent talks with detained migrants at the border of the United States and Mexico on March 31st, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.

The Trump administration intends to train Border Patrol officers to conduct the first important step of asylum screenings, according to the Department of Homeland Security's latest budget proposal. The plan would give agents the discretion to place would-be asylum seekers in expedited deportation proceedings.

For weeks, advocates have predicted that the Trump administration planned to train Customs and Border Protection agents to conduct what are known as "credible fear interviews." Confirmation of that plan came on Wednesday, when DHS asked Congress for a massive $4.5 billion in emergency funds. Buried in the proposed budget was $23 million to "begin implementing the Border Patrol credible fear screening program."

Currently, when someone arrives at the border, Border Patrol officers and CBP agents will recite a list of four questions, which all essentially ask: Do you have fear of returning to your home country? If a person answers affirmatively, that person will be sent to a trained asylum officer for a credible fear interview.

Importantly, asylum officers do not report to CBP—instead, they are trained and managed by a different agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher with the advocacy organization Human Rights First, says that moving credible fear interviews out of USCIS and into CBP would create serious problems.

"It seems to us a very bad idea to have CBP agents or Border Patrol doing the interviews, because those officers are meant to be doing immigration enforcement actions: They're detaining people who have crossed the border, they're questioning people at the port of entry," Kizuka says. "These are uniformed officers, and their function is not meant to also be [to do] refugee protection."

In a credible fear interview—a regimented and nuanced legal process—an asylum officer will ask questions to ascertain if a person has a meaningful claim for asylum. If the asylum officer decides they do, the interviewee will get a court date for an asylum hearing in front of a judge. However, if an asylum officer decides that someone has not passed the credible fear interview, that person will be placed in what's called "expedited removal proceedings."

Getting out of expedited removal proceedings is difficult and complicated, even though people whose claims have been denied by asylum officers have the right to have their cases reviewed in front of an immigration judge. People slotted for expedited removal are denied access to attorneys and must represent themselves.

Earlier this month, NBC News reported that Stephen Miller, an influential senior adviser to President Donald Trump, has argued that Border Patrol officers "will be tougher on asylum-seekers" and will place more of them in expedited removal proceedings. Kizuka says this is the reason the Trump administration wants to train Border Patrol officers to conduct credible fear interviews: "Various administration officials have made clear that the purpose of this is to deny more credible fears and remove asylum seekers more quickly, [because] there are fewer due process protections in the expedited removal process," he says.

If implemented, the plan could meet legal challenges. Kizuka says that current federal regulation holds that only USCIS officers have the authority to conduct the interviews. "It doesn't seem like they're going to propose a new regulation to amend the current regulation," he says.

Neither DHS nor CBP responded to a request for comment on this story by press time.