By Esther Lee
August 2, 2016
A Bangladeshi asylum seeker who arrived at the southern U.S. border was turned away after a border agent told him to seek asylum in Mexico. Another Central American asylum seeker was told by an immigration agent that he would be deported, regardless of whether he signed a statement testifying that he would be at risk of persecution or torture if he was returned to his country. And yet a third immigrant was told that it would be “better if you just ask to be deported” or “we’re going to throw you out.”
These anecdotes come from a new report by a U.S. government commission that makes federal policy recommendations, which documented the inconsistent experiences with immigration agents that asylum seekers and refugees encountered when they claimed a credible fear of being returned to their home countries and were instead put into an expedited removal process from the United States.
In the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report — which follows up on a two-volume report released more than ten years ago — researchers found that these immigrants continue to confront barriers found in the 2005 report, including agents who did not refer immigrants to other agencies when they expressed a fear of being returned, openly skeptical or hostile agents, and a lack of official interpreters.
Asylum seekers and refugee have the legal right to ask for humanitarian relief either at the border or within the United States if they can prove that they have a valid reason to stay in the country. Under U.S. law, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have to document that an asylum seeker or refugee expressed fear, then send that person’s file to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency, which is responsible for assessing the fear claim, known as a credible fear determination. But researchers found that initial interviewers sometimes sent immigrants home without sending their files on to the proper immigration agencies.
“It’s not the job of the Border Patrol agents to be the judge and jury here,” USCIRF Chair Thomas J. Reese, S.J., explained to ThinkProgress. “That’s part of the problem here. They’re taking on the role that’s supposed to be done later in the process by the USCIS, and even then, they’re not to make the final determination. They’re simply there to see if the fear is credible.”
“Our concern is that the people at the lower level are passing judgments on some of these things that really aren’t within their purview, and not within their training to do this kind of thing,” Reese added. “It should be done at a higher level by people who have the proper training and judgment to make these decisions.”
Part of the reason stemmed from agents who were openly skeptical and “jaded” by immigrants with similar tales of fleeing from Mexican cartels, claiming that immigrants could have been coached to tell the same asylum story and felt that “those with real fear can apply overseas and bring their family.”
“There may be similar stories because people experience similar violence so that’s been an allegation and definitely some of the border agents felt that way,” Elizabeth Cassidy, USCIRF Co-Director for Policy and Research and one of the co-authors, told ThinkProgress, dismissing the allegations. “If a person is a victim of persecution, they have a right under U.S. law and under international law to ask for protection and to have that claim fairly evaluated. The U.S. government has a responsibility to make sure that’s carried out.”
Researchers also found that immigrants found it difficult to make asylum claims because in some cases, border agents reached out to airline employees, other border agents, or even other immigrants to act as interpreters.
“We saw a few issues with interpretation, including the use of officers to interpret, rather than official interpreters,” Cassidy said, pointing out that interpreting officers may have the undue effect of intimidating asylum seekers. “It really became a two-on-one type of interview where the officer who was supposed to be interpreting was acting as an officer, rather than an interpreter.”
Still, in spite of the issues faced by asylum seekers, researchers believe that there could be a better system in place if the U.S. government would appoint a high-ranking official to make the reforms necessary to protect asylum seekers.
“We believe that having a high-profile, high-level official who would be responsible for coordinating and making it happen, having follow-through and supervision to make sure that these recommendations are followed that that would be very important,” Reese said. “Part of the problem is that there are so many agencies involved here. There’s a need for better training, a need for better coordination, a need for better supervision.”
“These are normal procedures that the government is supposed to do and it’s really disappointing to see after ten years that our recommendations haven’t been followed,” Reese said.
Asylum seekers and refugees like those from Central America may have a strong reason for leaving their countries. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have some of the highest homicide rates in the world, with murders linked to gang violence on the rise. What’s more, a 2014 Human Rights Watch report found that many people deported back to their countries have gone into hiding. Other deportees have been killed.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com