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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.

This migrant is waiting in Tijuana to be allowed to enter an asylum claim in the US — but under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, he may be forced to return to Mexico to wait while his case is pending.
Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

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.

“We were enlisted to give our blessing through these interviews,” another officer told Vox. “It’s our names on the forms.”

But “it seems like all of this is lip service.”

Asylum officers have raised concerns with their union. Vox spoke with several of them in their capacity as union members, in meetings facilitated and attended by the head of the union representing DC-area immigration officers in US Citizenship and Immigration Services, about how the new procedures have changed their jobs. (Vox granted them anonymity because they fear retaliation from superiors for speaking to the press.)

For decades, officers made judgment calls on whether a person could stay in the US to await an asylum hearing. Under the new rules, officers say they effectively have no power to do so. “I’m not adjudicating that case. It’s like someone else sticking their hand inside me, like a glove,” the officer told me.

An asylum officer’s primary job is to make sure an asylum seeker wouldn’t be persecuted if they’re turned away from the US: to uphold the fundamental principle of refugee law called non-refoulement, that a government must not send a migrant back to a country where they’d be persecuted or imperiled.

As the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program has expanded since it was introduced in January and the lawsuit over its legality has progressed slowly, many asylum officers have gotten increasingly uncomfortable with their role in the process. They worry that they’re being used to whitewash the program, and claim they don’t actually have as much power to allow migrants to stay in the US if they’re in danger as the Trump administration has publicly stated. One asylum officer described the interviews as “pro forma” — just for show.

Asylum officers are speaking out

Asylum officers are trained to evaluate migrants’ stories, to determine whether they should be allowed to stay in the US or sent back to their home countries. Above all, they’re the front line protecting the US from violating non-refoulement.

The official documents outlining MPP say that asylum officers and their supervisors are supposed to make the decision about whether someone qualifies to stay in the US. “Every MPP assessment is subject to review by a Supervisory Asylum Officer before the assessment is deemed final and the individual is notified of the result,” a USCIS official told Vox. “If they meet the standard set forth in the guidance” — higher than the standard used in traditional asylum screenings — “they will not be returned to Mexico to await their next hearing.”

But the union members who spoke to Vox said that decisions to let an asylum seeker stay are often reviewed — and blocked or overturned — by asylum headquarters. Decisions to send the asylum seeker back to Mexico, on the other hand, don’t appear to get reviewed at all. (USCIS did not respond to specific questions about the review process.)

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.

Asylum seekers are “scared, unprepared, exhausted” — and don’t understand they could be sent back to Mexico

For decades, someone coming to the US without papers to seek asylum has been given a screening interview with an asylum officer to examine their fear of returning to their home countries. If they pass, they’re allowed to formally apply for asylum before an immigration judge, and stay in the US in the meantime.

In January, under the Migrant Protection Protocols, the Trump administration started something different — part of its serial efforts to stem a growing tide of Central American asylum seekers. It started sending some Central American asylum seekers — first a handful a week, then dozens, now hundreds — back to Mexico after initial processing, with instructions to show up at a port of entry at a particular date for a hearing before an immigration judge on their asylum case.

The policy has raised serious concerns among lawyers and human rights advocates, who worry that there’s no way for immigrants to obtain American lawyers while in Mexico; that they may not be able to return to the US in time for their hearings; and, fundamentally, that northern Mexico isn’t necessarily a safe place for Central Americans fleeing persecution to be — that the US would essentially be violating the principle of non-refoulement.

That last concern is what, in theory, asylum officers are supposed to prevent.

The role that asylum officers play in the MPP process is very different from the one they typically play. Normally, a migrant has to pass a screening interview with an asylum officer in order to apply for asylum; if they fail, they’re deported to their home country. Under MPP, though, migrants are automatically allowed to apply for asylum before a judge in the US — the asylum officer just determines whether they are sent back to Mexico in the meantime.

As a result, both asylum officers and the migrants they interview are unprepared.

In the early days of MPP, the program was shrouded in secrecy — asylum officers sent to the border to conduct interviews weren’t trained on the new standards until they arrived. As the program has expanded, most asylum officers who worked at the Arlington USCIS office have been trained — but the training hardly answered their questions. Union members described it as a cursory PowerPoint that summarized what they already knew from official documents about MPP. One union member summarized the end of the training as, “‘Any questions?’ ‘Yeah, what the hell are we doing?’”

Furthermore, union members knew of at least one case in which an asylum officer who had missed the training session was told they had to do MPP interviews anyway, applying a standard they’d never used and never been trained in.

The asylum seekers they were speaking to were even less ready: “scared, unprepared, exhausted immigrants.” Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, typically the first US immigration authorities that these asylum seekers encounter when they cross into the US, don’t ask asylum seekers whether they’re afraid of being returned to Mexico, and will only refer them to an asylum officer if they voluntarily mention they’re afraid of return. One asylum officer told Vox that a CBP agent said they were “instructed not to ask” about fear of return to Mexico; another CBP agent told another asylum officer, “We don’t want to spoon-feed them” any supposed asylum magic words.

Screening interviews already take place in less-than-ideal conditions for discussing sensitive matters. The migrant is in a spare room at a CBP holding facility. At one facility, asylum officers jokingly called one of those rooms “the torture chamber” and complained about gurgling drainage; at another, a union member said they could hear children’s screams through the walls. For the first few weeks of MPP, asylum officers conducted interviews in person, but they’re now conducted like most screening interviews are: over the phone.

Crucially, union members said, interviewees didn’t understand why they were being asked about Mexico. They were afraid of being returned to their home country, and tried to stress that. One union member told Vox that asylum seekers “often don’t know why they’re talking about Mexico instead of Honduras or El Salvador.”

If anything, asylum seekers appeared to know far less about Mexico, a country they’d only spent a few days traveling through, than the officers interviewing them. That meant interviewees couldn’t give detailed enough answers to make a persuasive case to stay in the US. Part of an asylum screening is determining whether a migrant would be protected from persecutors by law enforcement; asylum officers know that Mexican police are often compromised or indifferent, but asylum seekers who’ve barely spent time in Mexico often do not.

A new legal standard that’s all but impossible to meet

Here’s how it normally works: After an asylum interview, the officer summarizes the facts of the case and reads them back to the applicant. Then the officer writes up a legal analysis that considers whether the interviewee is describing persecution (of a specific ethnicity, nationality, political opinion, religion, or “particular social group”) or torture, and how likely it is that they’d face such persecution or torture if returned to their home country.

For most screening interviews, the interviewee must show a “credible fear” — a deliberately generous standard designed to err on the side of non-refoulement. “If I want to go negative on someone” in a credible fear screening, says an asylum officer, “I have to turn over every rock” to demonstrate they lack a credible argument. The officer submits the legal analysis with their final ruling on whether the interviewee should be allowed to avoid deportation and seek legal status in the US.

Here’s how MPP is working: “You’re not adjudicating shit,” one union member told Vox in disgust. “You’re documenting a conversation.”

Remember, everyone returned to Mexico under MPP is still claiming asylum in the US, so the traditional screening standards — used to determine whether to allow someone to claim asylum or deport them — don’t apply. Instead, DHS has decided that a migrant put into the MPP process has to show that they are “more likely than not” to face persecution in Mexico in order to be kept in the US before their hearings.

That’s a higher standard than either “credible fear” or “reasonable fear.” And it’s not a standard that asylum officers are familiar with.

One union member told Vox that when they asked what legal authority the MPP program was using, a superior pointed to the statute on “withholding of removal” — a standard migrants are usually given a full court case to prove they meet. “I’m not an immigration judge,” the union member replied, “so that doesn’t help me.”

Compounding it all is the fact that union members said they were instructed to tell asylum seekers that there would be “no room” for a lawyer during their interview (though lawyers have been able to observe MPP screenings in rare cases).

In theory, a “more likely than not” standard sounds generous — a migrant could pass it even if there’s a 49 percent possibility that they won’t be persecuted. But in practice, union members say, it’s all but impossible for applicants to meet.

“The legal standard requires such specific and persuasive testimony that it leaves virtually no doubt — not ‘could,’ ‘would,’ or ‘might,’ but ‘will be,’” one union member told Vox. “No one can satisfy that burden.” Another union member said it felt like the standard was closer to 90 or 95 percent than 51.

Exhausted and confused immigrants simply “don’t have the tools” to give that testimony and satisfy doubts about whether they’d face persecution in Mexico, one officer said. They certainly don’t have the ability to articulate a “particular social group” they were being targeted as a member of.

In normal screenings, that wouldn’t be a problem. “All of our training for all these years teaches us how to identify particular social groups,” Michael Knowles, the head of the union local that represents USCIS officers in the DC area and overseas, says. “You may not be able to Google it, but if you’re talking to someone and they name the elements,” an asylum officer can make the determination. But with MPP, asylum officers aren’t being asked to synthesize answers or provide any legal analysis; they’re just checking boxes on a form and submitting it to their supervisors for review.

In other words, the training asylum officers are given to elicit testimony and translate it into legal language — to take the experiences and fears of traumatized immigrants and apply legal standards that the migrants themselves have never heard of — is cast aside. “They’re basically saying, ‘Don’t pay attention to what we trained in,’” Knowles says.

Approvals are rare. The ones that are granted are scrutinized by higher-ups.

Here’s how it typically works: An asylum officer’s write-up is reviewed by their supervisor. These reviewers check whether the write-up is technically accurate and whether their reasoning is “legally sufficient,” but they’re generally supposed to defer to the judgment of the officer doing the interview.

If a supervisor disagrees with a final decision, they can ask the asylum officer to go back and redo it. Knowles himself, who has been an asylum officer since the creation of a dedicated asylum corps in the early 1990s, has had only three cases where a supervisor disagreed with his assessment, and “in none of those cases,” he says, “was I forced to do something I didn’t believe in.”

Here’s how MPP is working: “If you want to go positive, you will face Herculean efforts to get it through,” one union member told Vox. “If your supervisor says yes, headquarters will probably say no.”

Every union member Vox spoke to said that even though most of the decisions in MPP screening interviews are negative, given the high legal standard, the rare positives are the only ones getting reviewed at asylum headquarters.

One union member told Vox that a top USCIS staffer had claimed all MPP cases were “eventually” reviewed, but none of the union members who spoke to Vox had ever heard of any questioning or review of a negative decision. “I have no idea what it could be,” one said.

Multiple union members reported that a supervisor was told not to issue any positive MPP decisions without checking with the other officers on their team, and with headquarters. One reported that the supervisor was told that “the front office” — upper-level management — “has eyes on these cases,” and that “they’ve already been complaining about you granting people.”

In two other cases, union members said, both the asylum officer conducting the interview and the supervisor agreed that an interviewee who had been kidnapped by cartels while traveling through Mexico shouldn’t be sent back, but headquarters overruled them.

In both cases, part of the explanation for the denial was that the cartels had not explicitly named the “particular social group” identified by the asylum officer as the reason they were targeting the migrant — something that, again, officers say they are usually trusted to identify themselves.

Typically, one union member said, asylum officers are taught to use a “reasonable man” standard — if a reasonable person could conclude, based on the facts available, that someone was being targeted based on group membership, that is sufficient to allow them to stay. (In one of the cases overruled by headquarters, for example, the asylum seeker was treated differently from his fellow captives — something that under a “reasonable man” standard could have been used to demonstrate he was being targeted whether the cartels explicitly said so or not.) But in this case, they said, “I wasn’t allowed to go positive” on those grounds.

“I’m afraid this is the end”

The asylum corps was already feeling ground down before MPP went into effect: They’ve had to implement other Trump administration efforts to restrict asylum, from DOJ decisions limiting domestic and gang violence claims to the short-lived “asylum ban,” while doing more screening interviews than ever.

But to many of them, MPP feels like a bright line has been crossed: They are no longer being trusted to do their jobs, no longer allowed to use the discretion they are supposed to have as adjudicators to protect the integrity of the asylum system while upholding the principle of non-refoulement.

A senior union member said that three younger colleagues had come to them in tears over their involvement in MPP, saying, “I don’t know that I can do this.”

They’re waiting to see what happens in the ongoing litigation over the program. But even if MPP is put on hold, they feel, there will just be some other attempt to override their discretion and force them to push people back — something that MPP has shown is possible.

A younger asylum officer told Vox, “I want to be able to say, when I’m Michael [Knowles]’s age, that I’ve been working in this field as long as he has” — longer than the younger asylum officer has even been alive.

“I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to,” they told me. “I’m afraid this is the end of the program.”

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect Michael Knowles’ position in the union representing USCIS officers.