President Trump’s election sparked a general panic in the immigration community in regards to the future of refugee and asylum programs in the United States. Although refugee policy has seen a number of drastic changes under the new administration, the changes to asylum policy have generally been subtle with less media attention. However, seemingly minor changes to asylum guidelines may still have a significant impact on certain asylees, making it extremely important to know what to expect when requesting asylum.
In basic terms, asylum seekers are refugees who have somehow, someway either made it into the United States or have made it to a port of entry. Unlike refugees though, there is no cap on how many asylum seekers the United States can accept. In fact, if a person meets the legal standard of an asylee as defined by the United Nations, the United States must extend some type of permanent legal status to that individual.
When an immigrant arrives at the border, they have the right to request asylum. They must claim to have a “credible fear” of persecution in their home country. Once this request is made, the individual will be screened by an asylum officer, who will make the determination whether this fear is “credible” according to a complex standard created by a mix of past immigration case law and DHS policy guidelines.
Unlike refugee policy, there have been no robust executive orders or proposed legislation that would directly affect asylum seekers, but there have been a number of minor intra-agency policy changes as to how asylum officers are to evaluate an asylum applicant. Most notably, asylum officers have recently been ordered to heavily scrutinize the credibility of applicants at the border, which will likely result in an increase in border rejections.
Although at first glance these changes may seem like insignificant technicalities, in reality, they could make all the difference to asylum seekers. For example, while an old DHS lesson plan for asylum officers stated that if the officer cannot determine whether an applicant is credible, they should likely find in favor of the asylum seeker, under the new lesson plan this leniency has essentially been erased. In addition, old guidelines stated asylum officers should ignore an applicant’s “demeanor, candor, and responsiveness” during an interview and should be especially cautious of cultural differences that might contribute to “odd” behavior. Under the new guidance, “demeanor, candor, and responsiveness,” can be a factor if it is not “significant” in the asylum officer’s decision.
As a result, asylum officers will be encouraged to probe asylum seeker’s stories to find any credibility concerns and evaluate the asylum seekers demeanor as they give responses. Although these changes will have an effect on all asylum seekers who choose to enter at the border, unaccompanied minors will undoubtedly suffer the most under the weight of these new standards.
Unaccompanied minors have always posed specific challenges for asylum officers because of the nature of their claims. Not only are these children often very young--many under the age of ten--they often do not speak English, have been traumatized by persecution in their home country, and are unfamiliar with certain U.S. customs. It is particularly difficult in such a situation for a child to take on the responsibility of reciting a set of facts and stories with the consistency needed for an officer to find the child “credible” according to DHS standards. Although asylum officers do undergo training to address some of these concerns, it is impossible to fully eradicate this problem.
Although it seems that these heightened standards for credibility and judging demeanor are a priority for the new administration, no new language was added to the new rules to exempt unaccompanied minors from these policies. Therefore, these children will most likely also have to go through advanced scrutiny during their asylum interview, a process which is already notoriously stressful and, in some cases, traumatizing.
If you know of a child traveling to the border, it is highly advised that you warn them of USCIS procedures and basic customs. A child in USCIS custody should always request a translator and a basic explanation of the credible fear process. Unaccompanied minors, like all asylum seekers, are also allowed legal representation during a credible fear interview, which is a right many do not take advantage of. Due to the vast legal complexities of asylum claims, it is highly advised that asylum seekers do obtain some kind of legal representation. Although these new standards will inevitably have significant effects, with basic preparation these effects do not have to be devastating to asylum seekers.