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Is the Trump Administration Hindering Asylum Seekers by Making It Harder to Tell Who Qualifies?

The administration hasn't been shy about changing the law, but more hidden changes have taken place too.
Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States walk to the U.S.-Mexico border at El Chaparral port of entry on November 12th, 2017, in Tijuana, northwestern Mexico.

Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States walk to the U.S.-Mexico border at El Chaparral port of entry on November 12th, 2017, in Tijuana, northwestern Mexico.

Immigration lawyers say that documents outlining what officials are looking for when they decide whether a refugee can stay in America have been moved or taken down altogether from government websites. These are quiet changes that don't require agencies to make public announcements about new policies or laws—but they make it harder for immigration lawyers to argue cases nonetheless.

"It's definitely been noticed by a lot of people because I'm on a bunch of different listservs and people will be like: 'Hey, do you have the training materials? Does anybody have a copy?'" says Christine Lin, senior staff attorney at the University of California–Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. "Trump has run on an anti-immigrant platform, so anything to make things more difficult for advocates, I think they're trying do."

At issue is what the government looks for when it decides cases of asylum, which foreign nationals can try to claim once they've arrived in the United States. The system is designed for those who fear persecution in their home country because of their race, religion, political opinion, or membership in a social group. The U.S. has signed an international law pledging that it will protect such people, so if asylum-seekers meet certain criteria and pass background checks, they're eligible to stay in the country.

Trump administration officials have expressed worry about the asylee vetting process. "The system is being gamed, there's no doubt about it," Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said in a speech. He has taken steps to change the law and strengthen restrictions on who qualifies for asylum, as NPR reports. But immigration lawyers say that revising certain training documents for asylum officers could have a similar effect—without requiring explicit legal change. That's because the law doesn't spell out every detail about how the government should decide on asylum claims, so what happens in practice depends a lot on what officers are told to do.

"If there's no actual law in the books, it's in the training manuals," says Matthew Hoppock, an immigration lawyer in private practice in Kansas City. "If they change the way they train asylum officers, then they're changing the law without saying so."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of asylum claims, used to list links to asylum-officer lesson plans, dated to 2009, on this webpage. But the agency removed those links—which together contained hundreds of pages of information—sometime in the spring of 2017, according to work from the Sunlight Foundation's Web Integrity Project, which automatically tracks changes to .gov websites.

Different, newer versions of that training material are available at this database on the USCIS site, and a USCIS spokesman emphasizes that the material was moved, not taken down: "Assertions that USCIS has removed or taken office[r] training documents off line are factually inaccurate," he writes in an email. "USCIS makes these training materials available on the Web to ensure public access to lesson plans." But advocates say not everything is in the database, and that it's more difficult to search for documents there.

The lesson plans help lawyers understand what adjudicators are taught to consider in asylum cases. When new plans are posted, it helps attorneys and advocates stay on top of policy updates. It's only fair for immigration lawyers to have that information, Lin says: "I feel like part of it is just transparency. Asylum itself is a protection for people. It's not like we're saying somebody violated the law, right? It makes sense to know what the government is evaluating and looking for."

Lin says that, during a conference call this month for stakeholders, officials said the missing documents were outdated and had been taken down for review. "OK, I get it," she says. "But then what are they training people with now? They must have some sort of course and why can't that be made available to the public?" (According to the USCIS spokesman, the available documents are used in classes now.)

And Lin suspects USCIS is training its officers differently now: "We see it in the way officers are interviewing people and even in the decisions that come down in cases." Yet during conference calls, Lin says, officials claim nothing has changed.