The 81-page report released Thursday compiles whistleblower accounts and media reports to provide an overview of the administration’s crackdown on migrants seeking asylum in the United States and attempts to curb migration to the southern border.
In one email, dated August 12, 2019, and obtained by Merkley’s office, an asylum officer denounced one of the administration’s policies as “clearly designed to further this administration’s racist agenda of keeping Hispanic and Latino populations from entering the United States.” The email was first reported by The Washington Post.
The officer was referring to the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols program, which requires some migrants to stay in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings. The program is being challenged in court, but has been allowed to proceed for the time being.
It’s not the first time asylum officers have expressed frustration over the program, which advocates argue puts migrants, many of whom are from Central America, in harm’s way.
In June, the union representing US asylum officers asked a federal court to end the policy, saying the directives are “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation and our international and domestic legal obligations.”
Merkley’s report, titled “Shattered Refuge,” emphasizes the frustrations held by some officials in the administration who are responsible for carrying out its policies and raises alarm over departmental actions that it alleges exacerbated the crisis at the southern border.
The report included details about:
- Six pregnant women in Customs and Border Protection custody were sent back to Mexico in May to await their immigration proceedings despite being several months pregnant, according to whistleblowers. The report cites a letter the American Civil Liberties Union directed to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general in September elevating concerns about the placement of pregnant women in the Migrant Protection Protocols program.
- The former head of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum division, John L. Lafferty, was pushed out by then-acting Director Ken Cuccinelli. Whistleblowers perceived this to be “the result of acting as a committed, civil servant who played it by the book,” according to the report.
- In April, US Citizenship and Immigration Services moved to raise the standard for credible-fear screenings, the first step in the asylum process. A lawsuit was filed in June challenging the change.
- The Trump administration assigned CBP agents to conduct credible fear interviews in what appeared to be an attempt to curb the number of asylum applicants, the report states. (More than 50 Border Patrol agents are conducting credible fear screenings, according to USCIS. As of October 2019, Border Patrol agents have completed around 2,000 credible fear determinations.)
- The report states that limiting entry at CBP ports of entry, a practice known as “metering,” has led to long wait lines and put migrants at heightened risk.
“America should be a land of hope and refuge – the place President Reagan called a shining city on a hill. We’ve seen the betrayal of that vision by the Trump administration’s intentional infliction of trauma on children and families as a warning to others to stay away,” Merkley said in a statement. “Their draconian actions were so contrary to American values and law that at least one whistleblower felt they could not morally or legally carry out their orders.”
The Trump administration has argued that the nation’s immigration system has incentivized people to journey to the southern border. President Donald Trump directed the Justice Department and DHS in April to propose regulations to staunch the flow of migrants, many of whom claim to be seeking asylum in the United States.
Within the last week, USCIS, an immigration agency within DHS, has rolled out proposed changes that would deny work permits to asylum seekers who cross the border illegally and apply a charge to asylum applications, among other things. Immigrant advocates and lawyers have pushed back on the proposed regulations, arguing that the rules penalize a swath of migrants who are seeking refuge in the United States.
Merkley’s report acknowledges the proposed changes to the asylum system and also resurfaces documents that found the controversial policy that led to the separation of thousands of families at the US-Mexico border was intended to deter migrants from coming to the border. It also reflects on the overcrowding at CBP facilities over the summer.