SAN DIEGO, Calif. (AP) - President Joe Biden canceled expedited asylum screenings in his first month as president. This was part of a sweeping overhaul of border policies under the Trump administration that included the construction of a wall along Mexico's border. He's now preparing his version.
Donald Trump's speedy reviews were criticized by government watchdog agencies when the percentage of those who passed the 'credible fears interviews' dropped. The Biden administration insists that its rapid screening of asylum seekers is different. Interviews will only be conducted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will be the only ones conducting interviews, and not Border Patrol agents. Everyone will also have access to legal advice.
The U.S. Government is preparing for an increase in the number of immigrants who are expected to try to cross the border to Mexico.
Normaly, three out of four migrants are able to pass a credible fear interview, but far fewer ultimately win asylum. According to the Government Accountability Office, during the five-month period of the Trump-era immigration program, only 23% of migrants passed the initial screening. 69% did not pass and 9% retracted.
In the United States, those who pass initial screenings can pursue their cases at immigration court. This usually takes four years. Critics claim that the backlog in immigration court encourages people to apply for asylum.
To pass the screening, migrants must convince the asylum officer that they have a "significant probability" of winning before a court on grounds such as race, religion or nationality. They can also argue they are facing persecution because of their political opinions, religious beliefs, or social membership.
According to the fast-track program of the Biden administration, those who do not qualify will be deported "in just a matter or days,' said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Thursday.
Mayorkas stated that the expedited screenings would only be applicable to adults who are single.
Some immigrant advocates, who have been briefed by administration officials, are skeptical despite the assurances given that immigrants will be able to access legal services. Katherine Hawkins is a senior legal analyst with the Project on Government Oversight. She noted that attorneys were not allowed to enter holding facilities.
From October 2019 to March 2020, the Trump administration conducted fast-track reviews. It then began to use a 1944 law on public health known as Title 42 in order expel immigrants based on COVID-19 prevention. Biden reversed the speedy screenings, which were part of Trump's immigration policies in February 2021.
The Biden administration will not limit migrants to a single phone call, unlike the Trump administration. Hawkins says it is unclear how many phone calls U.S. officials can make, especially when there is no response and the attorneys call again.
Hawkins, and other briefed individuals, claim that the screenings will initially be limited to Spanish speaking countries where there are regular U.S. deportation flights. The Administration began limited screening in Donna, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley this month, and expanded it to tents in other border towns, such as San Diego, Yuma, Arizona, and El Paso.
Mayorkas, former federal prosecutor and former U.S. attorney, did not speak about the access to legal counsel when he spoke Thursday about the broad strategy, which includes screenings as well as processing centers in Guatemala, Colombia, and possibly elsewhere, for people who want to legally enter the U.S. via an airport.
Mayorkas stated that he had increased the holding capacity of his office and established equipment and procedures to allow individuals to have access counsel.
Inspector General of Homeland Security Department took issue with the lack of legal representation in Trump's expedited screening. When screenings in El Paso began, migrants were able to use four cordless telephones. Guards brought them to an shack where they could consult with attorneys.
Inspector general stated that phone booths with handsets were installed later, but for safety purposes, they did not have any. This forced migrants to speak loudly in the presence of others outside.
Those who visited the facilities built under Biden report that they are larger and have more phone booths.
Paulina Reyes of the advocacy group ImmDef, who visited a San Diego detention facility in March, said that there were rows of cubicles.
The administration hasn't said how many lawyers have offered to represent asylum seekers. Hawkins told advocates that officials are reaching out firms who offer low-cost or free services to immigrants in detention centers.
Erika Pinheiro is the executive director of Al Otro Lado which operates in Southern California and Tijuana in Mexico. She said that she had not been approached, but declined to represent asylum seekers in expedited screenings. Arriving exhausted and unsure of asylum law, they are unable to tell their story effectively.
We know the conditions. She said, "We know that people will not be mentally prepared."
Biden's administration wants to finish screenings in 72 hours. This is the time limit that Border Patrol can hold migrants, according to a policy that is routinely ignored.
This is a big task. A screening takes around four weeks. According to GAO, under Trump's expedited screens, approximately 20% of immigrants remained in custody for one week or less. Around 86% of immigrants were held for 20 days or less.
Citizenship and Immigration Services identified 480 former asylee officers or those who have training to help about 800 with the expedited screenings. Michael Knowles is president of American Federation of Government Employees Council Council 119 which represents asylum officers.
Knowles said that 'all hands will be on deck for the near future'. We don't know for how long.