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February 21, 2017

DHS Enforcement Memo Would Limit Access to Protection for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First expressed its opposition to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memorandum implementing President Trump’s January 25 executive order on immigration enforcement priorities. The organization urges DHS to uphold U.S. treaty obligations to protect refugees and asylum seekers from persecution and violence.

“The Trump Administration is doubling down on its targeting of refugees as it moves ahead with a barrage of proposals aimed at limiting access to asylum and penalizing asylum seekers,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “These policies are particularly cruel given how difficult it already is for refugees to navigate the often onerous and complex U.S. asylum laws and system.”

Refugees already face a gauntlet of challenges in the U.S. asylum system. Provisions in today's DHS memorandum, like the underlying executive order, would multiply those challenges. This memorandum, unlike the president’s order and the earlier draft memorandum, recognizes that, under both U.S. law and U.S. treaty commitments, the United States has legal obligations to provide access to asylum and to protect those fleeing persecution. 

The memorandum outlines plans to implement a number of provisions impacting refugees and asylum seekers, including plans to: 

  • Further limit access to asylum by “enhancing” credible fear screenings, which may undermine the screening process Congress created to ensure bona fide asylum seekers are not deported.  
  • Expedite” conduct of asylum hearings by the immigration courts, which may signal the imposition of rocket-dockets that would deprive asylum seekers of the time needed to secure legal counsel and gather the very evidence needed to meet the many technical requirements and complexities required under U.S. law.  
  • Implement returns to Mexico and Canada while awaiting removal proceedings, violating U.S. law and treaty commitment if applied to asylum seekers, which would also place already vulnerable refugees in grave peril, further erode U.S. global leadership, and encourage other countries to shirk their responsibilities under international law and treaties. 
  • Increase detention and end release policies, which would, among other things, lead to more immigrants and asylum seekers being held in detention facilities for the duration of their proceedings, as consideration for release will be given on a case-by-case basis for a limited list of circumstances. The memorandum also indicates that arriving asylum seekers can still be assessed for release on parole. While it confirms that Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) parole directive for assessing parole eligibility of arriving asylum seekers remains in effect, it also indicates there will be additional review and guidance issued and signals that DHS may move away from assessing eligibility for all arriving asylum seekers, a move which would leave unrepresented asylum seekers particularly vulnerable to long term detentions. 
  • Issue a federal register notice expanding use of expedited removal to the country’s interior, a step that would deprive many immigrants and asylum seekers of access to immigration court hearings and legal counsel, and authorizing ICE officers to act in effect as judges by ordering deportations.   
  • Prosecute individuals for illegal entry and re-entry, which in asylum cases would violate U.S. treaty commitments

Human Rights First today urged Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to ensure that actions to implement the president’s executive orders on immigration and refugees uphold U.S. treaty commitments and international legal obligations. The call came in a letter from Human Rights First’s President and CEO Elisa Massimino, outlining recommendations for ensuring that the United States does not deny protection to refugees who do not present a danger or turn away asylum seekers at its borders.

"The United States has the capacity to manage its borders and safeguard its security without sacrificing its global leadership or subverting international law,” wrote Massimino in the letter. “[These executive orders] are unnecessary and cruel. Moreover, they set a dangerous example for the rest of the world, encouraging other countries—including those hosting the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees—to shirk their responsibilities to provide refuge to those fleeing persecution, violence, and terror. Such actions undermine international law and international cooperation through resettlement, critical tools for supporting global stability and advancing American national security interests.  

Human Rights First urges the Trump Administration to address protection requests at the U.S. border as part of a regional refugee and displacement crisis rather than through the narrow lens of border enforcement.     

“As DHS moves forward with implementation of the order, U.S. human rights and refugee protection obligations must be upheld and initiatives aimed at circumventing these obligations should be abandoned,” added Acer.

For more information or to speak with Acer contact Corinne Duffy at DuffyC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3319.