With a growing number of immigrants asking for asylum at the border, Department of Homeland Security officials have set new guidelines that raise the bar on who can enter the United States and formally file for protection, according to documents released Thursday.
The internal U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services documents, which were obtained by an advocacy group called the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, pertain to what are known as "credible fear" interviews.
Asylum officers conduct the interviews when a person subjected to expedited removal, such as a someone apprehended at the border, expresses an intention to apply for asylum or expresses a fear of harm if they return home. The officer determines whether the person is eligible for a full asylum hearing -- or should be sent home.
Under the new guidelines, spelled out in a Feb. 28 memo from John Lafferty, the chief of the Asylum Division at USCIS, officers are instructed to approve only those immigrants who demonstrate a "significant possibility" of winning asylum from a judge.
Lafferty wrote that the changes were made in light of concerns that officers had been approving cases that had "only a minimal or mere possibility of success."
The agency has been overwhelmed with a surge of new credible fear applications driven largely by an influx from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Over the last five years, credible fear claims at the border have increased sevenfold, from just under 5,000 to more than 36,000.
In his memo, Lafferty wrote that the number of credible fear referrals rose by more than 250% between fiscal year 2012 and 2013. He said the department conducted its review "in light of the increased allocation of resources devoted to credible fear adjudications and the attention on these adjudications."
Advocates for immigrants criticized the changes, which they said will make it more difficult for those seeking protection in the United States.
Judy London, directing attorney of the Immigrants' Rights Project at the pro bono law firm Public Counsel in Los Angeles, said the memo appears to be "a signal to asylum officers to be very wary about finding credible fear."
"The response of our government through this memo seems to be we need to make it more difficult for [immigrants] to establish their eligibility to stay here rather than looking at what is causing this increase," London said.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
Advocates for immigrants say the surge in credible fear claims is linked to worsening gang and drug violence in Central America. Others claim those who cross the border are simply becoming more aware of asylum as an option.
In expedited removal, certain aliens seeking admission to the United States are immediately removable from the United States by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), unless they indicate an intention to apply for asylum or express a fear of persecution or torture or a fear of return to their home country.