A new policy out of the Trump administration will speed up the asylum process. The procedural change, first reported by BuzzFeed News, will remove the 48-hour waiting period asylum seekers used to have before their initial asylum screenings.
A spokesperson for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services told BuzzFeed that the change is intended to make the process "more efficient and effective." But advocates have raised the alarm that speeding up the process could mean that people who have viable asylum claims might nonetheless be returned to their home countries.
"This move is clearly aimed at preventing people seeking asylum from conferring with attorneys—something we know dramatically increases a refugee's chance of winning asylum," Eleanor Acer, the senior director of refugee protection at the advocacy organization Human Rights First, said in a statement.
In the past, when asylum seekers were first placed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, they had 48 hours before what's called a "credible fear" interview. This interview is one of the most important parts of the asylum process: An asylum officer asks questions to try to see if a person has a plausible asylum claim. If an asylum seeker passes the interview, she's given a court date, and she moves on to the next stage of the process. But failing the interview carries serious consequences—in that case, the asylum seeker is placed in a streamlined deportation process, with little opportunity to appeal.
For someone who could face death or persecution in their home country, the credible fear interview has high stakes. That's why advocates believe it's important for asylum seekers to have the opportunity to talk with a legal expert before the interview. The U.S.'s asylum laws are complicated, and becoming a refugee takes a lot more than simply proving that you're fleeing for your life.
With the administration's new policy, however, the 48-hour waiting period will be reduced to one calendar day, giving asylum seekers considerably less time to prepare for their credible fear interviews.
People in immigration-related proceedings are not guaranteed lawyers, so the only people with lawyers in asylum proceedings are those who can afford private counsel, or those who have managed to connect with pro-bono attorneys. While in ICE detention, asylum seekers are given the opportunity to call into hotlines or meet with pro-bono attorneys who visit certain detention centers. Advocates like Acer worry that a calendar day simply isn't enough time for an asylum seeker to both connect with an attorney and receive meaningful advice and counsel.
Studies have found that a person's chance of gaining asylum is five times higher when that person has access to counsel. Researchers at Syracuse University found that only one out of 10 asylum seekers without counsel gains asylum—but more than half of the people who do have counsel go on to gain asylum.
Advocates are also concerned that speeding up the process could have other, less tangible effects: Many people who are in immigration detention have just completed long journeys, and may need time to physically and emotionally recuperate in order to be ready for a credible fear interview.