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Through requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and litigation, the Tahirih Justice Center and the American Immigration Council have successfully uncovered a number of documents providing insight into a controversial asylum screening program.

When a person arrives at a port of entry and requests asylum, the first step in the review process is a screening interview. Usually, this credible fear interview is conducted by a thoroughly trained and trauma-informed asylum officer, who is an employee of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Training and trauma-informed practices are crucial to ensure that the person seeking asylum has a full and fair opportunity to describe the persecution they have survived in their country of origin, and their fear of return to that country. Without these protections, a trauma survivor might be unable to clearly and effectively tell their story—increasing the likelihood that they will be wrongly returned to a harmful situation in contravention of law.

In early 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) started a pilot program that replaced those carefully trained asylum officers with U.S. Border Patrol agents at the credible fear interview. Border Patrol agents are law enforcement agents, and they lack the vetting, training, and expertise of asylum officers in reviewing credible fear claims. Worse, their history of misconduct toward people seeking asylum is well documented.

This pilot program started without publicity, and related documents were withheld from the public. Tahirih and the Council requested documents through FOIA about this program from DHS, USCIS, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The agencies produced some documents but withheld or redacted many more. Tahirih and the Council sued, seeking those withheld documents. As a result of that litigation, several documents were produced that shed light on the details of the program.

Illuminating the policies and practices of government agencies—especially those that may violate our moral and legal obligations to provide asylum seekers with due process—is an essential first step in accountability. Only once we learn the contours of this program can we understand its impact on survivors of gender-based and other violence and take action to protect their rights to seek asylum in the United States.

Tahirih and the Council are available to answer questions from people who think they might have been affected by this program. Survivors of gender-based and other violence who were screened for asylum eligibility while in detention in 2019 or 2020 can find out whether a Border Patrol agent conducted their credible fear interviews. Please reach out to [email protected] to find out more about this program and your rights.