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August 13, 2014

Human Rights First Urges Administration, DHS to Revise Flawed Approach to Protection Screening at Border

Washington, D.C. - Human Rights First today expressed serious concern that the steep decline in the “pass” rate for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) “credible fear” screening interviews reflects new practices and policies that are inconsistent with U.S. immigration law and U.S. commitments under international refugee and human rights conventions. From January to July of this year the credible fear screening pass rate dropped from 83.1 percent to 62.7 percent, according to recent data. Asylum seekers who do not pass this screening process will be summarily deported without even being allowed to apply for asylum or other protection in the United States.  

“The sharp decline in the credible fear screening pass rates raises serious questions about the new training guidance, the use of remote detention locations, and the recent rapid deportations of mothers and children without access to counsel.” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “We are deeply concerned that asylum seekers are being prevented from seeking protection in the United States due to these flawed policies and practices.”  

Following criticism of the credible fear pass rate by several members of Congress, USCIS issued new training guidance on the conduct of credible fear screening interviews in February 2014. In its June 2014 report on asylum and the border, Human Rights First identified a number of concerns about the new training guidance, which, along with an accompanying memorandum that cites to an increase in credible fear interviews and “the attention on these adjudications,” appears to signal that asylum officers should apply a higher standard in credible fear screenings. The USCIS Lesson Plan on Credible Fear specifically deletes a number of references to legislative history regarding the level of the screening standard and treats credible fear interviews like full-blown asylum interviews. USCIS has also changed its policy to decrease headquarters review of negative credible fear decisions. Additionally, the administration recently launched a fast-track process for conducting credible fear interviews in remote locations in ways that make it difficult to impossible for asylum seekers to have meaningful access to counsel prior to these screening interviews. Under these new procedures, women with children have been deported within days of arrival from a facility in Artesia, New Mexico that is located three to four hours away from major metropolitan areas where pro bono immigration attorneys are more likely to be located. 

Human Rights First urges USCIS to revise, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to instruct USCIS to revise, the February 2014 Lesson Plan on Credible Fear in a number of ways including to:

  • clarify in additional places that screenings are not full-blown adjudications;
  • restore prior language on the legislative history concerning the level of the screening standard;
  • make adjustments to revise other language that appears to attempt to further raise the “significant possibility” standard;
  • and clarify that asylum seekers are not expected to produce documentary evidence at credible fear interviews.

The organization calls on USCIS to immediately intensify supervisory review of credible fear determinations under the plan, and restore headquarters review of negative credible fear determination.   The Obama Administration, DHS, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) should implement measures to ensure that all potential asylum seekers – including women with children – are provided with Legal Orientation Presentations and meaningful access to counsel prior to undergoing credible fear screening and expedited removal, and DOJ should review the approach taken by immigration judges in credible fear reviews.

“U.S. policies and practices set an example for the rest of the world,” Acer added.  “The Obama Administration should take steps to assure fair process, legal counsel and access to asylum so that people are not improperly turned back to places where they may face persecution, torture and other serious human rights abuses.”

Resources:

Chart: Credible Fear Grant Rates

Blueprint: How to Protect Refugees and Prevent Abuse at the Border

Factsheet: Key Statistics and Findings on Asylum Protection Requests at the U.S.–Mexico Border

For more information or to speak with Acer contact Mary Elizabeth Margolis at margolisme@humanrightsfirst.org or 212-845-5269.