3/6/17 Update: Tahirih has released its analysis of the new lesson plan for asylum officers.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | March 3, 2017
Changes to the training manual for asylum officers conducting screenings at U.S. borders will turn away many survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence, and other harm who are eligible for protection under current U.S. laws, according to analysis by the Tahirih Justice Center. On February 13, 2017, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Asylum Division Chief John Lafferty issued a new lesson plan for asylum officers that implements President Trump’s January 25 Executive Order. The lesson plan went into effect on February 27.
Among other changes, the lesson plan removes critical instructions to asylum officers that these interviews are just initial reviews, not full adjudications. It also heightens the burden of proof placed on individuals seeking protection at the very early stage of the asylum process when the vast majority do not have lawyers.
“The lesson plan is a disappointing shift for the Asylum Division, the part of our government tasked with implementing asylum law and protecting refugees, the most vulnerable people in the world,” said Archi Pyati, Chief of Policy and Programs at Tahirih.
“Victims of violence who meet the definition of a refugee will be unfairly turned away before they’ve even talked to a lawyer, counselor, or judge. That is not due process. That is not protection. That is not American,” she said.
Individuals who come to the U.S. border for protection must first alert a Customs and Border Patrol agent that they are afraid to return to their home countries. This is not easy for anyone given language barriers, fatigue, and hunger, but those who have experienced human trafficking, rape, and domestic violence have an especially difficult time communicating these fears to armed, uniformed border guards. As a result, only a fraction of those who could be eligible for protection are even referred to a screening interview called a “credible fear” or “reasonable fear” interview (CFI or RFI) conducted by an asylum officer trained according to the lesson plan. The majority do not have legal counsel, have not been given any information about immigration law, and have not had a chance to explain their traumatic experiences to someone trained in working with trauma survivors. Only if a survivor makes it past this point can she be seen by an immigration judge to present testimony and evidence in support of her asylum case.
The new lesson plan raises the stakes of these CFIs and RFIs with asylum officers, effectively turning them into full-blown asylum adjudications. Many women who are survivors of human trafficking, rape, and domestic violence who are eligible for protection under U.S. asylum laws will be turned away before they have even had a chance to see a judge.
In the coming days, the Tahirih Justice Center will issue a summary of the provisions of the lesson plan that will have significant, negative impacts on survivors of gender-based violence.
The Tahirih Justice Center, which has provided legal defense to over 20,000 immigrant women and children fleeing violence over the last twenty years, including asylum seekers at the nation’s borders, is concerned that the new CFI and RFI lesson plan will keep thousands who merit legal protection under our laws from accessing it.
Tahirih will continue to monitor policy shifts that impact women and girls fleeing gender-based violence and advocate for the United States to honor its legal obligations to protect those fleeing human rights abuses.