White House backs proposal to let Border Patrol agents conduct asylum interviews

WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security is moving to have front line Border Patrol agents assess migrants’ initial claims for refuge, an aggressive step pushed by White House adviser Stephen Miller that could make the asylum claim process more difficult for migrants.

Miller has pushed for months to have Border Patrol conduct these interviews, according to a US official, despite agency concerns it adds more duties to an already overburdened force and immigration advocates’ worries it will result in deportations with without the opportunity to apply for asylum.

RELATED: Appeals court allows Trump’s policy of returning some asylum seekers to Mexico to continue

Currently, US Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers conduct the credible fear interview, wherein officers will decide whether an individual has a “credible fear of persecution” that could make them eligible for asylum in the United States.

In March, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen agreed to a pilot project, in part as a way to satisfy Miller’s demands while trying to ensure it could be done effectively within legal bounds and without affecting border security operations, the official added.

Nielsen left the administration last month, as President Donald Trump and White House immigration hardliners, including Miller, deemed her insufficiently tough when it came to stemming the flow of migrants at the border.

Trump has repeatedly railed against asylum seekers who now make up a large number of apprehensions at the southern border. His administration has rolled out a series of policies in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants and make it more challenging for those seeking asylum in the US.

The White House has asked Congress for $23 million to begin implementing the program. The money would be used to increase the federal pay-grade level of Border Patrol agents to “recognize that agents would have more responsibility to conduct credible fear interviews,” according to a source familiar with the funding request.

CBP has found the program to be legal, though there are other potential roadblocks such as training and overtime rules, according to a source familiar with the deliberations.

Immigration advocates say the plan is a mistake and increases likelihood that people at risk of persecution would be “summarily deported” to their home countries without the opportunity to apply for asylum.

House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard called the Border Patrol proposal “ill-advised” in a statement. “Border Patrol agents are already overwhelmed in trying to perform their own duties,” she said.

“This program will turn the credible fear screening process into an absolute farce,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer in response to initial reports of this program.

The proposal has also received some internal pushback.

A senior Border Patrol official told CNN that it “shouldn’t be our role. Our role is to make the apprehension, it’s not to decide whether there’s a credible fear.”

The official stressed the importance of the separation of duties between agents and asylum officers, saying it “brings integrity to the process” and allows for a fair assessment.

“I don’t want to be Judge Dredd,” said the official, referring to the fictional character who is a police officer, judge, and jury rolled into one.

Border Patrol staffing issues

The administration’s funding request comes at a time when Border Patrol is already strapped for resources and personnel. In addition to their security mission, agents have been tasked with the processing and care of migrants, including providing medical support and transportation for an increasing number of families and children arriving at the border.

John Sanders, the acting head of CBP, said last Thursday that given the “unprecedented numbers of people” arriving at the southern border, “over 40 to 50% of Border Patrol’s time is now spent on processing and other duties, not the law enforcement job that they were brought into do and they want to do.”

The agency’s hiring and retention issues are also recognized in the administration’s funding request, and Customs and Border Protection has had to pull officers from ports of entry to assist with operations along the border. DHS has also looked to the Defense Department for help.

National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, who supports the initiative, told CNN that training agents to conduct credible fear interviews could help alleviate backups in the asylum process. “The bureaucratic process is being slowed down” and it “takes years to be seen for asylum claim,” Judd said.

A plan to begin training some Border Patrol agents was planned for mid-April, but the pilot program was postponed, according to Judd. He suggested training agents to conduct interviews in plainclothes at a location away from detention facilities, so that it would be a “non-threatening” environment.

The White House did not respond to specific questions about the program and referred CNN to DHS for additional details. DHS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The credible fear funding request is indicative of the increasing number of asylum seekers approaching the US-Mexico border — a shift from the previous demographic of single adult males. The administration has also updated its “credible fear lesson plan,” marking the first time the training has been updated since February 2017.

Asylum screeners have received updated guidance that reiterates “longstanding policies that help determine an individual’s credibility during the credible fear interview,” said USCIS spokesperson Jessica Collins.

The Washington Post first reported that asylum officers have been instructed to look for discrepancies between what asylum seekers tell border agents and what they tell asylum officers in interviews about why they want to come to the United States, teeing up challenges of those applicants claims of credible fear of returning home.

Collins said asylum officers have received a “periodic update” to their guidelines and noted “USCIS considers credible fear claims on a case-by-case basis, taking into account relevant country conditions information and adhering to all applicable laws, regulations, policies, and precedent decisions.”

According to a USCIS official speaking on background, asylum officers are scheduled to begin applying their new training later this month.

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