April 11, 2018: Funding cut to the Legal Orientation Program
The Legal Orientation Program began under President George W. Bush in 2003. Since immigrants don’t have a right to an attorney but are allowed to have one, this program provided some basic help by informing detained immigrants of their options and operating an immigration court help desk program. The program cost $8 million a year and, according to a 2012 audit by the Justice Department, actually saved the government $18 million by reducing the length of immigration court cases and detention. Trump completely halted the program.
April 13, 2018: Deporting potential child sponsors
Tens of thousands of children cross the border without their parents. In fiscal year 2018, Border Patrol apprehended more than 50,000 unaccompanied children along the southern border.
Previously, when CBP found unaccompanied children at the border, they would transfer them to the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. ORR then looked for sponsors who would agree to take custody of the children while they went through court proceedings. That approach frees up shelter space and saves the government money by not having to detain and feed the kids. Usually, these sponsors are the children’s parents, relatives, or family friends. Many are illegal immigrants, but ORR did not ask their legal status because it prioritized quick and safe placements for the kids.
That changed after the Trump administration sent an April 2018 memo to various departments—including CBP, ICE, and ORR—mandating that they share information on potential sponsors and every adult member in the sponsors’ households. The result was that ICE began arresting people who came forward as sponsors, detaining about 170 from July to November 2018, the majority of whom were illegal immigrants with no criminal record.
That move placed potential sponsors in an agonizing dilemma: They could step forward, risking likely detention and deportation, or they could leave the child to languish in government custody. Many potential sponsors ultimately backed off.
Recognizing the unintended consequences of this policy, the Trump administration has been gradually rolling it back. As of June 2019, it no longer required immigration record checks on potential sponsors who pass background checks by the FBI.
June 11, 2018: Narrowing asylum statutes
In 2014, an immigration judge granted a Guatemalan woman asylum after she claimed a decade of abuse from her husband. She showed acid burns on her body and said her husband had punched her while she was eight months pregnant, resulting in a premature birth to a baby born with bruises. That case set a legal precedent. Since then, many immigrants have won asylum in the United States by claiming domestic abuse or gang violence in their home countries.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned that precedent in June 2018, calling it a set of “powerful incentives” for people to “come here illegally and claim a fear of return.” He ruled that the asylum statute would no longer apply to victims of “private criminal activity.” The rule made it much harder for most Central American asylum-seekers fleeing gang violence or gender-based violence to win their case in the United States. (Legally, though, they’re still entitled to seek asylum.)
April 2019: Border Patrol officers screen asylum-seekers
In order to stand before a U.S. immigration judge, every asylum-seeker must first pass a vetting interview to show he has a “credible fear” of returning to his country. Previously, USCIS asylum officers well versed in U.S. and international refugee law conducted all of these interviews.
Beginning earlier this year, Homeland Security officials empowered certain Border Patrol agents to screen asylum-seekers as well. This shift in duties is significant: An asylum officer is trained to interview traumatized individuals, detect fraud, understand conditions in other countries, and focus on refugee protection. A Border Patrol agent, however, isn’t trained to assess asylum cases but to enforce the law and catch “bad guys”—traffickers, smugglers, and terrorists. Lawyers and advocates worry this new policy means that asylum interviews will take the tone of a criminal interrogation, even though asylum-seekers are not charged for illegal entry if they win their case.
DHS says it’s assigning border agents because it needs more manpower for asylum screenings. It says the selected border agents will undergo five weeks of training with USCIS. Still, internal emails leaked to NBC News suggest that Trump administration officials had something else in mind: They thought asylum officers, who were approving 9 out of 10 asylum-seekers during vetting interviews, were too soft. The officials hoped border agents would approve fewer migrants. (It’s been widely documented that Border Patrol and CBP tend to have a culture of negative attitude toward migrants.)
October 2018: Termination of Safe Release
For about a decade, under the so-called “Safe Release” program, Border Patrol and ICE agents provided asylum-seekers with a phone so they could call family or friends who might agree to sponsor them while they await court proceedings. Officials also helped transport them to bus stations or airports after their sponsors booked tickets.
That all ended in October 2018, when the Trump administration ended the Safe Release program without warning, leaving asylum-seekers stranded in U.S. border cities and counties. Soon after, amid all the ensuing local chaos, the administration declared a national emergency at the border.
So far, several border regions, including San Diego County and New Mexico, have sued the Trump administration, saying they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars sheltering and assisting these asylum-seekers, something that was previously the job of federal agencies. (I’ve previously written about the chaos in border towns and how local churches stepped up to help.)