Asylum Officers Forced to Refuse Safe Haven to People Facing Peril / by Karie Luidens

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Exclusive: Civil servants say they’re being used as pawns in a dangerous asylum program

Asylum officers worry they’re being forced to send some Central Americans to wait in Mexico — even when they’re in danger of persecution there.

By Dara Lind
May 2, 2019, 11:20am EDT

The first time that one immigration officer interviewed an asylum seeker under new Trump administration protocols, the officer went back to their hotel room, turned up the shower as hot as it would go, and tried to wash off the feeling of being manipulated.

The officer had just listened to the Central American’s story of threats from drug cartels during his journey through Mexico en route to the US, and believed the man’s life was in danger. “This was a guy truly afraid he was going to be murdered, and frankly, he might be,” the officer told Vox.

But the officer “wasn’t even allowed to make an argument” that the asylum seeker should be allowed to stay in the US to pursue his case. They signed — feeling they had no choice — a form stating the migrant wasn’t likely to be persecuted in Mexico, and therefore could be safely returned.

Many asylum officers are concerned that the integrity of their office is at stake — along with their names. […]

As unprecedented numbers of Central American families come to the US-Mexico border, most of whom enter the asylum process, the Trump administration has put asylum officers in the crosshairs. The White House is pressuring the Department of Homeland Security to raise the standards for traditional screening interviews, and reportedly laying the groundwork for Border Patrol agents — who are assumed to be “tougher” on migrants — to conduct those interviews instead.

To human rights advocates, those plans risk running afoul of international law. The administration’s rhetoric, from President Trump’s tendency to mock asylum seekers at rallies to the claims of pervasive “fraud” in the system, conjures a future in which officers on the ground will be forced to refuse safe haven in the US to people who may well face peril when sent back.

But the asylum officers who spoke to Vox under the auspices of their union believe they’ve already seen that future — they see a US asylum system that has all but turned its back on people fleeing persecution in their home countries. And even if the specific “return to Mexico” policy is held up in court, they worry a fundamental norm has been broken that can’t be repaired.