Asylum seekers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry may find out more quickly whether they’ll be allowed to pursue their cases in immigration court because of a new program being piloted at the border crossing.
Through the program, people who are afraid to return to their home countries but do not have permission to enter the United States will stay in the port’s temporary holding cells until officials decide whether their stories have a chance at winning in court. The screening process, known as a credible fear interview, is run by asylum officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The program is meant to speed up processing of asylum seekers, letting them know more quickly whether they’ll be able to pursue their cases in the U.S.
Since at least December, the San Ysidro Port of Entry has had more arriving asylum seekers than it can process smoothly, causing long lines to form on the Mexican side of the border. Migrants from Central America, parts of Africa and even states across Mexico have waited for weeks for their turns to ask the U.S. for help.
Bardis Vakili, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego, didn’t think the program would move the line of asylum seekers more quickly.
“This seems much more likely to back things up than speed things along,” he said.
Vakili also worried the program, paired with a recent decision from Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions that limits the ability of people fleeing domestic violence or gang violence to ask for asylum, could quickly shuttle people needing protection out of the country.
Normally, Customs and Border Protection officers transfer asylum seekers from the port’s temporary holding cells to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for long-term immigration detention.
Asylum officers interview the migrants while they are in ICE custody, often by phone.
After each interview, the asylum officer makes a decision, and a supervisor at USCIS reviews the officer’s justification. The agency’s goal is to get results back to waiting migrants within about a week.
Under the pilot program, asylum officers stationed at the port conduct credible fear interviews, and arriving asylum seekers stay at the port of entry until they receive their results.
USCIS deferred to CBP for comment on the pilot program. CBP declined to comment on specifics about the new process.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials at the San Ysidro Port of Entry are open to exploring alternatives that might be able to shorten the timeline for individuals, particularly families, who have entered the asylum/credible fear process,” a spokeswoman for CBP said. “At this time, it would be premature to discuss which possibilities may be tested or may end up working given our limitations, such as infrastructure, space, workloads, etc.”
The asylum officers union said a couple of its members have been on rotating details to the San Ysidro Port of Entry for about a month.
The union has opposed some of the Trump administration’s recent changes to asylum policy, including a memo telling asylum officers to follow Sessions’ guidance on who qualifies for asylum.
When it comes to the pilot program, however, the union has a more positive outlook.
President Michael Knowles and other union officials said they hope that the program streamlines processing of asylum seekers and that migrants spend less time waiting in detention for decisions about whether their cases will move forward.
Union officials said conducting credible fear interviews at the port could shorten that wait time to two or three days. They said ICE sometimes has delays when notifying USCIS about people needing interviews, so having officers on the ground at the port could also speed up that part of the process.
“We want to help people get out of that limbo as quickly as possible,” a union official said.
To do interviews at the port of entry, asylum officers need private interview rooms where migrants will feel safe enough to share some of their most traumatic experiences.
Because the team detailed to the port is based out of an office in Arlington, Va., officers also have to work out logistics to have their decisions reviewed by supervisors on the East Coast.
Knowles and other union officials pointed out that the program is still in its beginning stages and is being tested with only a subset of those coming through San Ysidro. It may or may not become a more permanent process that affects all asylum seekers coming through the port.
The union hasn’t yet gotten sufficient feedback from its members to take a position about how the pilot program is going. But it is adding more travel time to its already-strained members, the union said.
“Our workforce is feeling very taxed by the amount of cases and the work they’re being asked to do,” Knowles said.
The union said as a general rule, its members can most effectively complete about four cases a day. Some are being scheduled for five or six cases to account for potential cancellations or rescheduling, union officials said.
Knowles said because of the workload and emotional nature of the testimony, union members experience burnout and high turnover rates. Asylum officers last, on average, between 18 and 24 months, he said.
“The subject matter, if you have a beating heart, it takes a toll,” Knowles said. “For those of us whose names are on the decisions, we want to make sure they’re the right decisions.”
Asylum seekers who do not pass credible fear interviews can request a judicial review of the asylum officer’s decision. Through the pilot program, migrants can also remain at the port of entry to speak with a judge over video conferencing.
The National Assn. of Immigration Judges didn’t have a stance on the pilot program in particular. Union President Ashley Tabaddor said its members have concerns about the use of video conference technology in general in immigration court.
Video conferencing has been used for years to connect judges to immigrants for various kinds of hearings.
“Any time you have a [video teleconferencing] connection, it certainly isn’t the same thing as being in person,” Tabaddor said.
She said that judges experience a lot of technical issues with the devices and that the technology complicates logistics.
For example, almost all immigration court proceedings still happen on paper. Depending on where the judge, attorneys and immigrant are physically located, passing paperwork among the parties can be difficult, she said.
Sometimes judges have a hard time seeing people appearing on the courtroom TV, Tabaddor said, which raises questions for the union about whether the televised immigrants’ surroundings make it possible for them to feel comfortable telling their stories.
“You need to make sure the person that is beaming in, that they’re in a setting where they feel comfortable enough and safe enough to share traumatic experiences,” Tabaddor said.
Vakili, the ACLU attorney, said he worried about the implementation of the pilot program and about its intent, given the Trump administration’s recent changes restricting who is able to get asylum.
“It’s very concerning that a secret pilot project is being used to implement a law without any public awareness, particularly when the attorney general has unilaterally attempted to overhaul the asylum laws on his own,” Vakili said. “We worry about asylum applicants’ rights being protected, particularly the right to have someone present, including an attorney, at their credible fear interview, which is required by law.”
CBP does not generally allow attorneys to access people held in the port of entry, Vakili said.
He worried about how long asylum seekers might end up staying at the port of entry, especially if they ask for judicial review of their cases in backlogged immigration courts.
The holding area isn’t meant to house people for long periods of time, Vakili said. CBP’s own policy says people should be moved out of its facilities within 72 hours.
Attorneys who, under a court settlement, were recently allowed to review conditions at the San Ysidro Port of Entry found issues with overcrowding and lack of basic hygiene.
The fact that immigration officials want to speed up the process did not bother Vakili, he said, but he urged officials to be more transparent about the program and about conditions at the port.
“It’s not a problem to want to handle the cases of people you’re incarcerating expeditiously, but you can never sacrifice due process when you do it,” Vakili said.
Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.