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Whistleblower: DHS Suppressed Reports on Central America and Inflated Risk of Terrorist Border-Crossers

September 16, 2020 (5 min read)

Prof. Susan Gzesh, Sept. 16, 2020

"Earlier this month, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Whistleblower Brian Murphy’s complaint received substantial news coverage for his revelations about pressures from the White House to repress or alter intelligence reports about Russian meddling in U.S. internal security matters. What received less press attention, until reported by New Yorker journalist Jonathan Blitzer via Twitter, were the Trump administration’s attempts to change or suppress intelligence reports that contradicted their immigration policy initiatives on the Mexico-U.S. border and Central American migrants. Murphy’s complaint makes clear how far political appointees in the Trump administration were willing to go to hide facts or outright lie to the American people to support its cruel—and in several ways illegal—immigration policy.

The Trump Administration’s Immigration Policy

Since early 2017, the Trump administration has sought to block access to the United States to asylum seekers from Central America. First came the separation of Central American migrant children from their parents upon apprehension at the border and the imposition of a mandatory detention policy for all unauthorized asylum applicants. These early measures were accompanied by decrees changing the interpretation of asylum eligibility to disallow claims based on domestic violence and persecution by criminal organizations.

The administration then created the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols,” under which asylum applicants would remain in Mexico between the time they made their applications at border crossing points and their hearings on their claims. The Trump administration threatened economic sanctions that put significant pressure on Mexico to stop Central Americans from entering Mexico at the Guatemalan border and to increase Mexico’s own interior enforcement.

Finally, in summer 2019, the Trump administration was negotiating so-called “Safe Third County” agreements with El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, under which those countries’ governments would agree to accept applicants from “third countries” for adjudication of their claims despite the applicants’ arrival at the U.S. border, effectively barring them from claiming asylum in the United States (as reported in Just Security here and here). Towards the end of 2019, the United States started to implement those agreements.

The White House policy of blocking Central American asylum claims and sending Central American and other asylum applicants to have their claims adjudicated in Central America were based on two false assumptions: (1) that Salvadorans, Guatemalans, or Hondurans are unlikely to have valid claims for refugee status; and (2) an assurance that their refugee status claims – and those of other asylum seekers – could be safely and fairly adjudicated in any of those three countries.

U.S. law and regulations require that a “Safe Third Country” must be “safe” and provide due process for claims. Specifically,

“the alien may be removed, pursuant to a bilateral or multilateral agreement, to a country… in which the alien’s life or freedom would not be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, and where the alien would have access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum or equivalent temporary protection” (see 8 CFR 1158(a)(2)(A)(1)).

U.S. law and the United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees also require the United States to accept political asylum claims presented at the U.S. border and to not return applicants to a place where their “life or freedom would be threatened.” These conditions were, of course, not met with respect to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Trump administration later ceased referring to the agreements with these Central American countries as “Safe Third Country” agreements and used the term “Asylum Cooperation Agreements,” perhaps in a cynical attempt to avoid U.S. law and regulations.

What Murphy’s Complaint Reveals

According to his whistleblower complaint (footnote 1 at pages 9-10) and earlier anonymous reports he filed with the DHS Office of Inspector General, career DHS intelligence official Brian Murphy presented intelligence reports to political appointees in DHS which found “high levels of corruption, violence, and poor economic conditions” in all three countries. It was no surprise that Murphy’s complaint recounts that in December 2019, as the Trump administration was sending the first asylum seekers to Central America, then Acting Assistant Secretary of DHS Ken Cuccinelli ordered Murphy to change those reports.

According to Murphy, Cuccinelli not only claimed the reports must be false, but also attributed them to forces within the intelligence community hostile to the President. He accused “unknown ‘deep state intelligence analysts’ of compiling intelligence information to undermine President Donald J. Trump’s policy objectives with respect to asylum.” According to Murphy, Cuccinelli further ordered him to identify those “who compiled the intelligence reports and to either fire or reassign them immediately” (see page 9 of Murphy’s complaint).

With respect to the policy rationale to support spending millions of dollars on a border wall,  Murphy’s complaint recounts how he was asked to reinterpret and rewrite intelligence reports about Known or Suspected Terrorists (KSTs) attempting to enter the United States from Mexico to fit the White House’s policy arguments about the need for a wall. In several meetings during 2018 and 2019, Murphy delivered intelligence to then DHS-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other officials that the actual number of individually-documented KSTs was very tiny. Despite Murphy’s briefings, Nielsen and other officials in DHS issued documents and gave congressional briefings in which they greatly exaggerated the numbers, inflating a figure of 3 KSTs to over 3,000. (Murphy’s attorney has provided an amended complaint to correct an error in the original version of these events.) At one meeting in December 2019, after Murphy contradicted his superiors regarding the number of KSTs crossing into the United States, he was removed from the meeting by now interim DHS Secretary Chad Wolf (as noted in his amended complaint at pages 5-8).

Brian Murphy’s Whistleblower complaint confirms what the public has seen so often: White House officials and political appointees in federal agencies willing to hide carefully investigated and proven facts in order to substitute lies more in keeping with White House policy goals.

DHS Secretary-designate Chad Wolf is supposed to testify before a House panel later this week.  Let’s hope he gives truthful answers to all the questions raised in Brian Murphy’s complaint."

- Susan Gzesh is a Senior Lecturer at the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights at the University of Chicago. She is also of counsel to Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym (Chicago). She has worked as a legal advisor to the governments of Mexico and El Salvador on U.S. immigration law, and has advised philanthropic foundations, NGOs, and migrant-led organizations. In the 1990s, she co-founded a regional network of migrant advocacy organizations which still meets annually with the intergovernmental Regional Conference on Migration. She is a Non-resident Fellow of the Migration Policy Institute (Washington, D.C.) and a member of MPI’s Study Group on U.S.-Mexico Migration.