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A Top Immigration Official Appears To Be Warning Asylum Officers About Border Screenings

The email appeared to push asylum officers to stop allowing passage to some people seeking refuge at an initial screening at the border.

Last updated on June 18, 2019, at 12:27 p.m. ET

Posted on June 18, 2019, at 11:58 a.m. ET

John Moore / Getty Images

Former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli (second from left).

The newly appointed leader of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, sent an email to staffers Tuesday in which he appeared to push asylum officers to stop allowing some people seeking refuge in the country passage at an initial screening at the border.

“Under our abused immigration system if an alien comes to the United States and claims a fear of return the alien is entitled to a credible fear screening by USCIS and a hearing by an immigration judge,” Cuccinelli wrote to USCIS staffers.

Cuccinelli began the message by relaying the number of apprehensions at the southwest border and that the system had reached a breaking point. He told staffers that USCIS needed to do its "part to help stem the crisis and better secure the homeland."

"Asylum officers, you took an oath to support and defend the constitution of the United States. As a public servant your role as an asylum officer requires faithful application of the law."

The acting director cited statistics used by the Trump administration about the individuals who do not show up for their immigration court hearings and those who do not end up being granted asylum.

Cuccinelli then told staffers, in an apparent warning, that the gulf between the number of individuals granted passage under the screening and those who are granted asylum by an immigration judge was wider than the “two legal standards would suggest.”

“Therefore, USCIS must, in full compliance with the law, make sure we are properly screening individuals who claim fear but nevertheless do not have a significant possibility of receiving a grant of asylum or another form of protection available under our nation’s laws,” he said.

Cuccinelli added that officers have tools to combat “frivolous claims” and to “ensure that [they] are upholding our nation’s laws by only making positive credible fear determinations in cases that have a significant possibility of success.”

One official at the Department of Homeland Security — of which USCIS is a part — said the email was “insane,” while former officials said the email was clearly a threat.

“I read this only in one way — a threat. A threat that asylum officers will be blamed by their new boss for the repeated failures of the Trump administration,” Ur Jaddou, a former chief counsel at USCIS, told BuzzFeed News. “This is an unbelievable threat and not something a director would normally ever send.”

Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said Cuccinelli was trying to ramp up the pressure on officers in whatever way he could. His understanding of the law, however, was misguided, she said.

"The acting director is trying to place the burden of reducing the difference between the high level of credible-fear acceptances and the low level of ultimate asylum approvals on the shoulders of asylum officers," she said. "However, the reason for this difference can be traced back to Congress—which purposefully made a low bar for the credible-fear process—and the failure to provide counsel for asylum-seekers, which all but guarantees the majority will fail in the court system."

Pierce said the standard for being allowed initial entry into the country when claiming asylum in the screening was actually lower than Cuccinelli made it seem.

"To obtain asylum, applicants must establish that there is as little as a 10 percent chance that they will be persecuted on account of a protected ground," Pierce said. "To demonstrate a credible fear, applicants need only show a 'significant possibility' that they could establish at least that 10 percent chance.

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