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Immigration Law

What Does “Credible Fear” Really Mean?

Elizabeth L. Silver, May 24, 2021

"A FEW MONTHS BEFORE COVID-19 descended, I spent a week in Dilley, Texas, as a volunteer attorney at the South Texas Family Residential Center, which is essentially a holding center, specifically for women and their children. It’s the last stop before expedited removal and the place where many women and children are sent once they’ve claimed fear of persecution for the purpose of applying for asylum, or for those who have also been apprehended internally.

I was working with asylum seekers at the Mexican border port of entry, where people were held without answers for weeks, even months, while they awaited the next step in their asylum claims: the credible fear interview. If asylum seekers, fleeing persecution in their home countries, declare their fear of returning, they are detained as they await this interview, which will determine whether they can proceed to the next step: appearing before an immigration judge to request asylum. The conversation leads to a proverbial thumbs up or down, a trip to a courtroom or the border they just fled. If an asylum officer determines that their story has objective elements of credible fear, they may proceed to the next legal step. Officers essentially check required elements off a list, including what the specific act of persecution is, if the asylum seeker knows the reason why she’s been persecuted, how many times it happened, if she has sought help to remediate it, and more. In other words, asylum seekers’ lives depend on the hour or so answering questions spent either in a small room or, more likely, over the phone with a government official and interpreter.

Right now, our country again faces a critical point in defining our identity: are we in fact a country founded on freedom and designed to welcome those in need? The Biden administration states that it aims to help asylum seekers, but in order to do so we need to reevaluate how we approach asylum at all levels. That begins with reassessing how we determine credible fear.

During my brief time working in Dilley, I helped women prepare for their credible fear interviews. Many asylum seekers might not understand the process, nor necessarily know which details of their stories determine what the United States has deemed credible fear. Asylum is not a guaranteed right, and attorneys are not permitted to help during the interview; thus, preparation is key.

... A fair evaluation, just like in other fields of law, requires that applicants be allowed to properly tell their stories with the aid of attorneys. But summarily, it requires proper training on the part of those people listening to their stories. It requires a full view of the individual claiming asylum — not an impromptu, isolated phone call or hurried in-person interview. There is a reason that appellate courts defer to trial courts to reevaluate their decisions: trial courts visually witness all testimony and physical evidence. You must look a person in the eyes and assess her responses to properly determine fear. When you can’t even do this, you’ve taken away what makes us human. The Biden administration now faces the Herculean task of restructuring our immigration system, not just by walking back Trump policies but also by building new ones that represent a country built on freedom, hope, and asylum. And it starts by properly and fairly listening to our asylum seekers."

Elizabeth L. Silver is a writer and attorney based in Los Angeles.