White House operative Stephen Miller is maneuvering to further sabotage the asylum process by replacing highly trained career staff with border cops at a crucial early stage.
The scheme would shift responsibility for initial “credible fear interviews” with asylum-seekers away from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency where it’s rested for years. Miller is eager to replace USCIS’s professional asylum interviewers with Border Patrol officers, emails reported by NBC News suggest.
The credible fear interview process has long been a target for President Donald Trump’s staffers seeking to radically restrict Latinx immigration. Miller in particular is seen as a prime mover behind Trump’s efforts to restrict legal immigration as well as flows of undocumented people — including support for work-visa rule changes that experts say would favor white Europeans.
The laws and legal standards underlying those interviews err on the side of asylum-seekers by design, because passing a credible fear check only ensures that the asylum-seeker will get to go before an immigration judge. These first-round interviews are intended to be a modest screening rather than a hard barrier, in part because the final determination of an asylum case is viewed as so sophisticated as to require a courtroom adjudication.
But Trump’s team have already assigned a few dozen Border Patrol agents to conduct credible fear interviews as part of a pilot program. The new emails reveal that Miller wanted someone to give him numbers to show those Border Patrol interviewers were rejecting credible-fear claims at higher rates than the experts at USCIS.
A National Security Council official prepping U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staff for a meeting with Miller last Friday warned them to bring numbers and be prepared to discuss “when the [USCIS asylum] officers will no longer be looking over the shoulders of agents.”
Border Patrol agents are not trained to conduct these interviews. The credible-fear process is deceptively complex, resting on a multi-layered combination of concrete statutory language and shifting interpretation of that language by both executive branch officials and judges. USCIS staff run the interviews because they are specialists in these complexities.
Border Patrol agents would receive crash-course training – the first 10 agents assigned to the current pilot program were still in training as of May but have apparently conducted enough binding credible-fear interviews in the ensuing couple months to generate numbers worth presenting to Miller at the July meeting – then replace people with years or decades of actual experience working within the system. From the xenophobic perspective that Miller and Trump espouse, this is perfectly rational: They want the asylum doors to swing shut, so they’re picking the right tool for the job.
But handing asylum interviews over to Border Patrol is more than just a misallocation of resources. It’s a conscious choice to give more power to a law enforcement body whose reputation, credibility, and integrity have all become obviously questionable in the past few years.
A secret Facebook group where Border Patrol officers cracked racist jokes, shared misogynistic memes, and propagated 4chan-like conspiracy theories had more than 9,000 members before it was exposed by reporters earlier this year.
A dozen people have died in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody since September alone.
Homeland Security’s efforts to staff up Border Patrol with new and well-qualified bodies have gone poorly, with the private company contracted by the Trump administration to vet new hires delivering exactly two new border cops while charging taxpayers $13.6 million over its first year.
Anecdotal examples of corruption and ethical rot within the agency have begun to stack up. Agents have been accused of sexual abuse and murder. Migrants held in CBP custody routinely report verbal abuse, petty punishments for being noisy while held in dangerously unsanitary conditions, and an alarming mix of isolation, undernourishment, and psychological cruelty at the hands of agents.
This isn’t some spontaneous explosion of lawlessness and cruelty following from Trump’s own political victories, either. It’s a deep-set and long-standing culture within Border Patrol – according to experts from within the policing profession who’ve looked into the matter officially. Former New York City police chief Bill Bratton led a review prior to the 2016 election that found “that arrests for corruption of CBP personnel far exceed, on a per capita basis, such arrests at other federal law enforcement agencies.”
This is the talent pool from which Miller hopes to pull personnel to be flash-trained in federal asylum law and then empower to evaluate whether migrants’ fears of violence are credible enough to merit a full hearing.
In case the goal of all this isn’t clear, the emails also shed new light on a lingering sub-plot within the administration’s multifaceted border crackdown.
When Trump’s decision to separate children from their parents upon arrival first became public, the administration scrambled to contain the political damage — and repeatedly flip-flopped in the process. Reporters asking why the administration was breaking up families tended to get one of two contradictory answers. Sometimes Trump’s delegates would seek to deflect blame for the family separation policy by insisting they had no other choice under existing law and court precedent. Trump himself blamed unspecified “bad laws the Democrats gave us” to shrug off responsibility.
But on other occasions, rather than lamenting their hands had been forced, officials would explain they were breaking up families so that word would get back to Central American countries that the journey north could end with someone’s kids being confiscated by American law enforcement.
This deterrence argument for family separation fueled the story, of course. The administration had been caught doing something widely reviled as inhumane and monstrous, and responded by bragging that it had done that thing on purpose to send a grim message. They were, in effect, making examples out of these kids by taking them, isolating them, and subjecting them to early-childhood traumas that psychologists warn will have lifelong negative effects.
DHS, HHS, DOJ, and White House officials seemed to realize quickly how damaging that boast was to public approval for Trump’s immigration policies. They began insisting they’d never made a voluntary choice to discourage migration by breaking up families at all. By the fall, internal memos confirmed the opposite: Administration officials had hoped ripping families apart would discourage future migrants, then redacted that brainstorm from documents they released to the public.
What does all this have to do with the new internal deliberations over which portion of the immigration bureaucracy should handle credible-fear interviews? The emails also show that Trump’s senior staff continue to privately support the idea that the harsher the U.S. treats people arriving to the border, the fewer future migrants it will have to interface with at all.
“My mantra has persistently been presenting aliens with multiple unsolvable dilemmas to impact their calculus for choosing to make the arduous journey to begin with,” the NSC official wrote, according to NBC.