The Trump administration plans to enact procedures that will make it tougher for unaccompanied immigrant children to obtain asylum in the US, according to a memo distributed to immigration officials Friday.
The memorandum, issued by officials with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), appears to represent the latest attempt by the Trump administration to try to deter unaccompanied children from coming to the country and applying for asylum. Earlier this year, officials said they were on track to house a record number of unaccompanied children in shelters scattered across the country.
The new procedures could make it less likely for unaccompanied immigrant children to have their asylum claims initially heard and processed by USCIS, a policy that will anger immigrant advocates and likely lead to legal challenges. Unaccompanied children in removal proceedings get an opportunity to present their claims to USCIS first and, if denied, get another opportunity in immigration court.
The procedures, which revert the agency to prior practice from 2009, are to go into effect on June 30.
“This administration has long viewed the basic humanitarian protections provided to unaccompanied minor children as ‘loopholes’ in our immigration system,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “These protections were put into place recognizing the unique vulnerabilities of migrant children traveling alone.”
The process stems from the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, signed by then-president George W. Bush, which made it so USCIS was the first body to hear and determine asylum claims made by children who arrived in the country without a guardian — a law meant to place unaccompanied minors, who sometimes do not have legal representation, in a less adversarial setting than adults who have their claims adjudicated only in immigration court if they were placed into removal proceedings.
The change in settings can be the difference in whether a child is able to obtain asylum.
Asylum officers have a mandate to offer humanitarian protection to those fleeing dangerous situations, while immigration judges aim to be neutral arbiters of cases, experts said. In practical terms, asylum officers can lead children in their questions about an asylum claim, while immigration judges generally do not.
Asylum officers are trained in how to do nonadversarial interviews, while in immigration court, an attorney from the Department of Homeland Security can cross-examine them.
USCIS officials have jurisdiction over unaccompanied children who filed for asylum, even if they had removal proceedings pending, as long as their claim was first filed when they were unaccompanied children.
USCIS officials previously relied on an initial determination made by either Customs and Border Protection agents or Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers that an immigrant was an unaccompanied child at the time of encounter or apprehension.
The new policies make it so asylum officers must now determine whether an individual who applied is an unaccompanied child at the time of filing and should no longer rely on the initial determination. Under the new procedures, those older than 18 at the time of filing cannot apply.
“By increasing the points at which the original unaccompanied child designation is reexamined, they are ensuring that fewer children benefit from these protections, and that fewer children are ultimately granted asylum,” Pierce said. “The administration has repeatedly asked Congress to change the procedures established under the 2008 law, with no luck. They are thus doing whatever they can unilaterally to roll back these protections.”