USCIS Is Withholding Records Showing That Border Agents Are Abusing Asylum Seekers

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As thousands of Central American families arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border asking for asylum in 2014, human rights organizations raised alarms about asylum seekers’ treatment by Customs and Border Protection officials. But these organizations were not the only ones expressing concern—asylum officers within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also raised alarms about CBP misbehavior.

A new Freedom of Information Act lawsuit hopes to reveal how asylum officials’ repeated concerns about CBP officer misconduct were left unaddressed. The lawsuit, filed by Human Rights Watch and Nixon Peabody LLP, seeks information about such misbehavior, including hundreds of reports that CBP failed to properly screen asylum seekers.

This lawsuit comes after Human Rights Watch, along with the American Immigration Council, filed a FOIA request asking for records of complaints made by officers in USCIS’s Asylum Division. The lawsuit asks USCIS to turn over all records of complaints about CBP misconduct from 2006 to 2015, arguing that the agency violated FOIA by failing to provide requested key documents following the original request. These documents included a spreadsheet where asylum officers purportedly documented hundreds of instances of “problematic Border Patrol practices.”

CBP officers at ports of entry and along the U.S. border are generally the first to encounter newly arriving asylum seekers. When asylum seekers express a fear of returning to their home country to a CBP officer, the officer is required to refer them to an asylum officer with USCIS for an interview. The asylum officer decides whether the asylum seeker has a “credible fear” of persecution, a determination which allows the asylum seeker to pursue an asylum case in immigration court.

Because these credible fear interviews occur after an asylum seeker has already been processed by CBP officers at the border or ports of entry, asylum officers are able to ask about any encounters with CBP. The limited records USCIS offered in response to the FOIA show that asylum officers often had serious concerns about the behavior of its sister agency.

The documents produced to date demonstrate how grave the problem is:

  1. One email from an asylum officer to a supervisor expresses a belief that there are “significant issues in how some Border Patrol officers are screening individuals.”
  2. A second email discusses an incident where “CBP mocked a transgender woman for hours and refused to record her fear” of returning to her home country. These internal reports of CBP abuse match the reports of many asylum seekers who encountered abuse at the hands of CBP officers during the same time period.
  3. A third email from an asylum officer expressed concerns that an asylum seeker was coerced into withdrawing his request for asylum, with the officer writing that: “What is especially disturbing about this is that … the record indicates that [the asylum seeker] has been subjected to harassment, intimidation, and physical mistreatment by CBP upon his recent entry into the United States, and this mistreatment. . . affected his decision to dissolve his case.”

Records of CBP’s mistreatment of asylum seekers is especially important as the numbers of asylum-seekers at the border continue to rise. Last year, groups sued CBP, alleging a pattern or practice of unlawfully turning away asylum seekers who arrived at ports of entry and requested asylum. In light of CBP’s own inadequate complaint system, this new lawsuit could substantiate the many reports of the agency’s misconduct.

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