Human Rights First (HRF) and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) each released reports this month detailing the flawed treatment of asylum seekers in the United States. The USCIRF report, Barriers to Protection: The Treatment of Asylum Seekers in Expedited Removal, looks at the Department of Homeland Security’s overall process for asylum seekers, while the HRF report, Lifeline on Lockdown: Increased U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers, focuses on the increased detention of asylum seekers.
By way of background, under current laws the government employs an expedited process for removing from the United States certain noncitizens, including many new arrivals, without a hearing before an immigration judge. As part of the process, DHS officers (whose primary focus is enforcement) must ask if each individual fears returning to his or her home country, and if so, the person must be afforded an initial screening for humanitarian protection, such as asylum.
The USCIRF report highlights many ways in which this process is failing asylum seekers. One major concern USCIRF raises is that some of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials who are processing asylum seekers also are skeptical of their claims. The report provides examples of border patrol agents extensively questioning and casting doubt on the veracity of asylum seekers claims. Yet, their only job as it relates to an asylum seeker is supposed to be noting if the person expresses fear or not. There also is evidence that border patrol agents are incorrectly stating why individuals are coming to the U.S. As the report explains, “USCIRF investigators were told about a 4-year-old child’s file that indicated he said he had come to the United States to work.”
Further, USCIRF observed officers failing to follow their own procedures. For example, border patrol agents often use template documents to go through the interview and record the person’s narrative. Yet, “USCIRF observed that when a BP agent opened the templates to begin the interview, answers were already included and would require deletion by the agent…USCIRF also observed one agent cutting and pasting the answers from the template into the sworn statement even before the interviewee had finished giving his answers.”
The HRF report focused less on the processing of asylum applicants and more on how asylum seekers end up in prolonged detention. Despite various DHS directives in recent years indicating that asylum seeks can be released in a variety of capacities, the United States is still detaining asylum seekers in detention conditions similar to criminal prisons for months at a time. In order to be released, the government often demands extremely high bond amounts, and an indigent asylum seeker is very unlikely to be able to pay. High bonds, along with the policy of attempting to deter Central Americans fleeing violence from coming to the U.S. and seeking asylum, have led to an increase in the number of asylum seekers and refugees DHS detains.
Both reports have similar recommendations to protect asylum seekers, including having DHS clarify its directives around parole for asylum seekers to ensure actual implementation and holding individualized custody hearings for all asylum seekers. USCIRF’s report is a follow up to a previous report in 2005, which made many recommendations that have not been implemented.
The U.S. asylum process is a difficult and complex journey for any individual to undertake, and currently, as these report’s highlight, the U.S. government’s treatment of asylum seekers is falling short.