In a tense exchange during a staff meeting on Wednesday, a leader of the union representing asylum officers pressed acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli about controversial agreements the Department of Homeland Security signed to send asylum-seekers to Central American countries, as well as Cuccinelli’s unwillingness to meet with the union.
The back-and-forth, described by witnesses to BuzzFeed News, is the latest episode in a fraught relationship between hardline acting director Cuccinelli and the asylum officers union, which has pushed back and criticized multiple immigration policies during the Trump administration. Wednesday's town hall was the first meeting between Cuccinelli and USCIS staffers from across the country since his appointment this summer.
Michael Knowles, an asylum officer and spokesperson for the National CIS Council 119, the union that represents thousands of USCIS employees worldwide, including about 700 refugee and asylum officers, asked Cuccinelli why he had not met with the union and asked to schedule a future meeting.
“I believe the day you tried to get on my calendar was the day you went on CNN and had some things to say, and I didn’t want to legitimize some of what you were saying there,” Cuccinelli responded, according to witnesses who added that he quickly moved on to the next question. “Maybe another day, but it’s hard to meet with people who are suing you.”
The union has not sued USCIS but has filed amicus briefs supporting multiple lawsuits over USCIS policies, including those that have restricted when asylum-seekers are eligible for protections. Conversely, union leaders representing the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have close relationships with President Donald Trump.
USCIS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the exchange.
Knowles initially asked Cuccinelli about the safe third country agreements signed with El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Advocates and experts have said that such agreements would leave asylum-seekers in precarious conditions in countries that are not able to offer adequate protections. Knowles asked for more details on the agreements and what it would entail not just for asylum officers but those seeking asylum.
Cuccinelli said that the agreements will allow the US to send certain asylum-seekers back to the three countries, depending on the populations the three countries accept.
“So far, none of them have been executed on,” he said. “Steps are being taken to execute them.” Cuccinelli said that acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan is working on the agreements this week.
In his explanation, Cuccinelli signaled that the agreements are close to implementation.
“I expect you’ll be seeing news roll out on this relatively soon. We’ll see a fair bit of development before the end of the calendar year,” he said.
Since he entered the role, Cuccinelli has implemented policies that cut back the time immigrants have to consult with attorneys before their initial asylum interviews and implored asylum officers to be stricter in the interviews. At the same time, the union representing asylum officers has pushed back on the policies instituted under his watch.
Last week, the union urged a federal appeals court to block a policy from the Trump administration that virtually bans asylum at the southern border. The amicus brief filed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is the latest public challenge by the union representing the officers, which has previously pushed back on a policy forcing asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico as their cases proceed in the US.
“Asylum officers who do this work are the ones tasked with applying it. We are the hands-on agents of this policy, and I don’t know of any asylum officers who think it is the right thing to do,” Knowles told BuzzFeed News then.
The regulation at issue makes anyone traveling through Mexico by land to the southern border ineligible for asylum if they have not first sought protection there before reaching the US. Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans and others were expected to be affected by the restrictions that took effect in July.
Under the Trump administration, asylum officers have had to implement other policies, such as one forcing migrants to remain in Mexico during the duration of their immigration cases, that they have felt violates the law and is unconstitutional.