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Dr. Yael Schacher, May 13, 2021
"Though he has already revoked some of the former administration’s highly restrictive policies on asylum, President Biden has thus far left in place an expulsion policy first imposed by the Trump administration under Title 42 of the U.S. Code, and based on the unreasonable assertion that public health requires such restrictive measures be essentially directed at asylum seekers. Ports of entry have remained closed to asylum seekers except to a select few exempted from Title 42 in response to a lawsuit challenging the policy. This month, the Biden administration moved to expand the humanitarian exemption process further, tasking NGOs with identifying vulnerable migrants in Mexico and getting information about them to U.S Customs and Border Protection officials (CBP) in order to speed processing at ports. In addition, since February, Mexico’s refusal to accept back expelled Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan families with young children has meant that the Border Patrol has released some families and allowed them to proceed to their destinations—often the homes of relatives—to pursue their claims for asylum there. This is currently a practice borne of the necessity of limiting congregate detention during the pandemic. But a return to the pre-existing policy and practice—a border screening process called expedited removal—will recreate long-standing problems, and the Biden administration should now consider alternatives.
Under expedited removal, border officials are tasked with asking migrants who lack valid travel documents about their fear of return to their home country and with referring them to preliminary interviews with asylum officers if they express this fear. U.S. asylum officers assess whether the migrants have “a credible fear” of persecution—that is, a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum. If they fail this interview, they are removed or remain detained (without real access to counsel) for a review by an immigration judge within seven days. A negative decision by a judge is final and leads to removal. A positive credible fear decision leads the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to place the asylum seeker in full (non-expedited) proceedings designed to secure the “removal” of unauthorized migrants, and the asylum seeker must then prove to an immigration judge (who works for the Executive Office of Immigration Review in the Department of Justice) that they merit refugee status.
Expedited removal created an entirely “defensive” system—whereby asylum seekers are presumed removable. It is also an adversarial system, and, as applied, has undermined the right to seek asylum at the border and recognition that asylum is a legal pathway to protection regardless of status. For example, prior to a determination of eligibility, U.S. officials have criminally prosecuted those who have sought refuge but have been without travel documents or have entered without inspection. Many arriving asylum seekers get screened out even before credible fear assessments can be made, as they have been unfairly rejected by CBP officers who did not ask them about fear or inform them of their right to seek protection. Those who CBP refer for credible fear interviews are required to show they can meet a complex legal protection standard just after arrival and while detained; those denied at the credible fear stage have inadequate opportunity for appeal. Expedited removal has cut off access to the federal courts for border arriving asylum seekers; as a result, asylum jurisprudence is left to develop without addressing protection issues raised by a large majority of today’s asylum seekers. In practice, expedited removal has limited the ability of Central Americans in particular to obtain access to protection and fair assessments of their asylum claims, and many have been removed to life-threatening danger.
Expedited removal has been justified as a means to promote efficiency in asylum processing. Yet over the last decade, when large numbers of families have come to the border to seek refuge, expedited removal has proven extremely inefficient. President Trump expanded expedited removal—extending its application far beyond the border (anywhere within the United States to anyone present for less than two years without authorization), putting credible fear interviews in the hands of enforcement officers, and raising eligibility standards.
On February 2, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14010 on “Creating a Comprehensive Regional Framework to Address the Causes of Migration, to Manage Migration Throughout North and Central America, and to Provide Safe and Orderly Processing of Asylum Seekers at the United States Border.” The Executive Order called for a review of the use of expedited removal within 120 days. The Order suggests that the Biden administration intends to implement expedited removal in a way that is more efficient and respectful of due process after the lifting of Title 42. For reasons described in this brief, it is highly questionable that such a system will prove to be fair or even effective and workable. Thus, this issue brief suggests alternative ways the United States can have a fair and efficient system that better fulfills its obligation to provide access to protection at the border. A different reception system at the border is an essential component of a new, comprehensive, protection-oriented approach to migration from Central America."