The long-serving head of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Asylum Division was pushed out this week by the agency’s hardline acting director, Ken Cuccinelli, according to a source with knowledge of the move, marking the latest shake-up at the Department of Homeland Security under the Trump administration.
The reassignment of John Lafferty, who led the agency’s Asylum Division for six years, has caused consternation and fear among asylum officers and other USCIS officials, who worry that the administration is dead set on pushing forward with policies that may not always be legal or adequately researched. Lafferty will be reassigned to the role of deputy director of a USCIS service center in Virginia.
A USCIS spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the agency has “a mobile group of senior executives who qualify for a variety of positions” and that the agency has the authority to reassign high-level managers like Lafferty to best serve the agency.
But others within USCIS said the move was clearly a shot at the Asylum Division as a whole.
“This is just another attack on the asylum system,” said one USCIS official who was not authorized to speak to the media. “To remove someone with his knowledge of and history with the program will cause damage. The administration views him as just another loophole.”
Lafferty had been tasked with leading asylum officers through uncharted territory under the Trump administration. In the past year alone, the administration has attempted to ban asylum for those who crossed the border without authorization and forced asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico as their cases were processed in the US. In recent months, the administration pushed through a regulation that banned asylum for those who traveled through Mexico before reaching the US border.
Lafferty issued guidance to asylum officers on the regulation, saying that the division was “once again being asked to adapt and to do so with very little time to train and prepare” — a pointed comment addressing the rushed nature of the policy, which took effect the same day it was issued.
“This is shocking and distressing news for the civil servants in the Asylum Division,” said another USCIS official. “A very sad day where an incredibly sophisticated, highly dedicated, and ethical leader is being removed from an important position in the agency.”
Under his tenure, Cuccinelli has warned asylum officers to not allow some people seeking refuge passage into the country after an initial screening and sped up initial screenings of people seeking asylum, a move that advocates say gives immigrants less time to prepare for their interviews or recover from dangerous journeys.
“I’m scared. Wondering how we’ll make it through to next year,” said another asylum officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s all the more chilling because many of us saw Lafferty as a shield against this monstrous administration. He fell. What’s next?”
Cuccinelli has maintained an active Twitter feed where he has attacked the asylum officers union for criticizing a policy that forces immigrants to remain in Mexico, advertised his TV appearances, and shown continuous support for immigration policies pushed by the president.
Immigration advocacy groups have challenged the legitimacy of Cuccinelli’s appointment as acting director of USCIS, calling on the Department of Justice to force the former Virginia attorney general to prove he is legally eligible to serve in the role.
Cuccinelli was selected as acting director by President Trump in early June, after being hired to a position that did not appear to exist before his arrival. Advocates believe his appointment violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.