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October 12, 2017

Sessions Presses Bogus Asylum Narrative at the Immigration Courts

This morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to the headquarters of the U.S. immigration courts in Falls Church, Virginia to attack asylum seekers. His remarks, along with the White House’s “principles” released earlier this week and the president’s executive orders on refugees, are part of the administration’s effort to portray refugees and asylum seekers as threats and frauds. This bogus narrative, one that the xenophobic far-right in Europe also employs, may score political points with fringe audiences, but it does harm to vulnerable people and runs counter to American ideals.  

The Attorney General’s speech was rife with misstatements. Sessions claimed that asylum applications are “seldom” denied. Human Rights First teams up with pro bono lawyers at firms across the country to provide legal counsel to refugees. We know firsthand how hard it is for refugees who have fears of harm to meet the many complex evidentiary and legal requirements. In June 2017, only 32 percent of affirmative asylum seekers had their claims approved by the USCIS asylum office, and only 43 percent were granted by the immigration courts in fiscal year 2016. 

Sessions also claimed “anecdotally” that there is “significant fraud” in the “credible fear” screening process. But Human Rights First has documented the many effective anti-fraud and security safeguards, which the Attorney General didn’t mention. This screening process is designed to prevent immigration officers—who are afforded the ability to issue deportation orders under expedited removal—from improperly deporting asylum seekers. As long as asylum seekers meet the credible fear standard, they are allowed to apply for asylum, provide evidence, and have their eligibility for asylum assessed. 

Sessions claimed that the screening process is “broken” and that the pass rate was nearly 90%. In fact the pass rate in fiscal year 2016 was only 78.6 percent, and it had fallen to 68 percent in June 2017, in the wake of the Trump administration’s executive orders targeting refugees and asylum.  This drop raises serious concerns that asylum seekers with real protection claims are being turned away.

In addition, Sessions claimed that a 2009 policy led “most aliens who passed an initial credible fear review to be released from custody in the United States.” Wrong again. As Human Rights First reported last year and again just a few weeks ago, immigration officers at many detention facilities fail to follow this policy, leaving asylum seekers in detention facilities and jails for many months or longer.

Moreover, as the Attorney General surely knows, this 2009 policy requires parole assessments only for the small portion of asylum seekers who sought protection at a formal port of entry and passed credible fear screenings, not for the larger numbers who request protection after crossing the border and have access to actual bond hearings. To claim as Sessions did that this policy creates “incentives for illegal aliens to come here and claim a fear of return” is simply more nonsense.

The Attorney General bemoaned “skyrocketing” claims of fear, but somehow forgot to mention the major reason for the increase: the exodus of refugees from the Northern Triangle of Central America and, more recently, Venezuela. The U.N. Refugee Agency and human rights organizations have detailed the dangers forcing people to flee in search of protection. Asylum claims have also risen sharply in other countries in the region, including in Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize. The number of asylum applications filed in Mexico rose by 678 percent from 2013 to 2016, and is expected to more than double again during 2017, as Human Rights First documented in a July 2017 report.  

In his speech, the Attorney General touted the proposals relating to asylum and the immigration courts outlined in the administration’s “principles” released earlier this week. These proposals largely seek to prevent refugees from even accessing the U.S. asylum system and punish those who do with prolonged detention in jails and correctional facilities. But the proposals are largely demands for Congress to pass new laws.   

So why did the Attorney General travel to the headquarters of the immigration courts to assert that many of the asylum cases pending before the courts are “overloaded with fake claims”? Why did he tell the courts that “with the election of President Trump, we have seen a significant improvement,” “we can do so much more,” and, “you play a key role”?  Why did he contend these cases are “seldom” denied? 

Is the Attorney General essentially signaling to the very adjudicators who decide these asylum cases that more should be denied? Why did the White House include in its “principles” a statement referring to the imposition of “performance metrics” on immigration judges? Will immigration court asylum grant rates, like the credible fear grant rates, plummet in the wake of the administration’s anti-refugee rhetoric and policies?

This country can both safeguard its borders and protect the persecuted. It’s long past time for the Trump Administration to stop painting refugees and asylum seekers as threats.