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February 23, 2018

Congress Must Stop Administration's Assault on Asylum

This piece was originally published on Medium.

Last week, Congress failed, yet again, to secure a legislative compromise that would provide legal status to thousands of young people at risk since the Trump Administration announced plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The Senate’s failure came amidst persistent pressures from the White House to adhere to its principles on immigration reform — demands it seeks from Congress in exchange for fixing DACA. Many of those demands reflect the administration’s desire to all but halt U.S. asylum protection for individuals seeking protection from persecution, including by possibly sending asylum seekers back to Mexico to seek protection there. At a time of global humanitarian crisis and with over 300,000 asylum applications pending before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, these are cruel and heartless proposals.

But the Trump Administration doesn’t need Congress to effectively dismantle the U.S. asylum system. It’s well on its way toward achieving this goal through a series of distinct attacks that don’t require legislative action.

It begins at the southern border, where agents are denying entry to some asylum seekers in violation of U.S. and international law. Various groups have documented this practice, and there are audio recordings exposing it. While the U.S. government’s record in this area has never been flawless, under President Trump agents have told some people arriving at the border that the United States is no longer accepting asylum seekers. President Trump’s hostility toward refugees is sending a message. At the port of entry in Hidalgo, Mexico, agents reportedly told asylum seekers, “Trump says we don’t have to let you in.” Asylum seekers turned away by the U.S. government have been raped, kidnapped, and beaten.

As official ports-of-entry become more hostile to asylum seekers, some are taking alternate routes into the Unites States, but our government provides them no warm welcome here, either. Last spring, In response to President Trump’s executive order telling the Department of Justice to make criminal prosecution of immigration offenses a “high priority,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to target “first-time improper entrants.” The result is an increase in prosecutions for the crimes of illegal entry and illegal reentry — but these prosecutions violate U.S. treaty obligations that prohibit the penalization of asylum seekers for unauthorized entry. The government holds most asylum seekers who face this charge in federal prisons without any chance of bail, pushing them to plead guilty in fast-track, group hearings that threaten due process rights.

Border officials have even gone so far as to separate asylum seekers and other migrants from their children so that they can prosecute the adults. This cruel practice punishes families for seeking protection and places children at risk of additional trauma. People go weeks and months without knowing where their children are being held — every parent’s nightmare.

Attempting to bolster support for these cruel and degrading moves, administration officials have repeatedly made misleading statements, claiming that the asylum system is rife with fraud and loopholes — a narrative at the heart of the White House’s immigration principles. On the contrary, if asylum seekers even manage to enter the United States, they face numerous obstacles — many of them longstanding — in their effort to get a fair hearing for their claims. Simply put: it’s hard to receive asylum.

As it assaults the right to seek asylum, the administration is also making every effort to halt the U.S. refugee resettlement program. To that end, it is making alarmist and unfounded claims about potential terrorism. The truth is that not only are refugees among the primary victims of terrorism; they are also the most thoroughly vetted group coming to the United States, undergoing well over a year of screening by various government agencies.

By labeling asylum seekers and refugees “illegal” entrants or “potential terrorists” or “fraudulent” applicants, the administration is depicting them as dangerous and undeserving. Congress — as well as the American public — should reject these cynical attempts to pit one group of immigrants against another.