By Molly O'Toole
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Border Patrol agents are beginning to screen migrant families for "credible fear" instead of highly trained asylum officers who are charged with determining whether applicants qualify for U.S. protection, the Los Angeles Times has learned.
The first Border Patrol agents arrived last week to start training at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, the nation's largest immigrant family detention center, according to lawyers working there and several employees at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The move expands the Trump administration's push for Border Patrol agents to take over the interviews that mark the first step in the lengthy asylum process. Border Patrol agents began training to conduct asylum interviews in late April, but agents have now deployed to family detention facilities for the first time.
As a result, Border Patrol agents — law enforcement personnel who detain migrant families at the border — will also have authority to decide whether those families have a "credible fear" of being persecuted in their home countries.
Customs and Border Protection has provided few details about the Border Patrol asylum training and has not publicly acknowledged whether agents have yielded significantly lower approval rates than federal asylum officers, but internal communications and other official documents obtained by The Times indicate early problems with the program.
The Citizenship and Immigration Services personnel requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Neither the agency nor Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol's parent agency, immediately responded to requests for comment by deadline.
Agents at Dilley are not wearing the Border Patrol's well-known olive-green uniforms, and are identifying themselves to migrant families and children as asylum officers, said Shay Fluharty, an attorney with the Dilley Pro Bono Project, who has been in interviews conducted by the agents.
"It's creating significant strain for our clients — not just because they're unprepared and untrained," Fluharty told The Times. "We understand that the intention is to significantly limit asylum officers who are conducting these interviews and have them be primarily conducted by Border Patrol."
The Trump administration's ultimate goal with the Border Patrol training program is to make it more difficult for migrants to win asylum, asylum officers, officials and lawyers say, because White House officials believe that agents will be more adversarial and less likely to approve asylum seekers. By contrast, asylum officers work under Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that administers the legal immigration system and benefits.
Under Homeland Security regulations, the credible-fear interview must be conducted in a "non-adversarial manner."
Michael Knowles, special representative for the federal asylum officers' union, said many members are concerned about the use of law enforcement personnel for crucial interviews with people seeking refuge. Neither the union nor its officers have been given official notice of or explanation for the shift, Knowles said.
"I don't mean to denigrate the proper and legitimate role of Border Patrol, but it's different," Knowles said. "They're not trained and geared toward refugee protection, any more than I'm trained to go look for tracks in the desert and chase people."
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council union, confirmed that agents are undergoing training in which they conduct credible-fear interviews with family units. But he pushed back against the idea that Border Patrol agents would be "tougher" against asylum-seekers.
"I've personally had conversations with both President Donald Trump and (advisor)Stephen Miller," Judd said. "It's always been my understanding that the reason to have Border Patrol agents do the credible-fear interviews is to ensure the asylum process begins at the earliest practicable moment. ... The narrative being painted that Border Patrol agents will deport more persons doesn't hold water."
According to a Customs and Border Protection training timeline obtained by The Times, 10 Border Patrol agents from the El Centro sector in California began training to do credible-fear interviews in April, and by August, a total of 60 agents were due to conduct their first credible-fear interviews. A new group started training early September, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services personnel.
The agents are all "non-bargaining employees," meaning they are not members of a union.
The timeline states three times that "additional training will be required" if the Border Patrol role in asylum interviews expands to family units. Homeland Security officials also assured congressional staffers in August that the Border Patrol was not going to cover family units because of that requirement, a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee aide told The Times. Department officials did not inform the committee they'd be deploying agents to family detention centers.
It's unclear whether the agents sent to the detention center in Dilley received additional training, or whether Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers will remain at the facility after they finish instructing the agents. Several officers have already been reassigned.
According to separate records obtained by The Times, as of last month, Border Patrol agents had completed 178 credible-fear screenings with asylum-seekers from more than 15 countries — all of whom were single adults. They determined 54% met the credible-fear standard and 35% did not. Agents closed 11% of cases without making a determination.
While the newly trained Border Patrol agents have yet to complete many screenings, that's a far lower approval rate than is typical for the initial interviews. Congress deliberately set a low standard for "credible fear" in order to ensure that the U.S. government did not return people to potential harm, and roughly 80% of asylum-seekers pass the first interview.
Ultimately, only about 1 in 5 asylum-seekers wins a case, according to the Justice Department. The Trump administration cites that disparity to argue that most asylum-seekers have fraudulent cases, and Trump frequently disparages asylum as a "hoax." He also has lamented that Border Patrol and military personnel are restricted from getting "rough" with migrants.
Advocates argue that the disparity only shows how difficult it is to win the right to stay in the United States. With the backlog of immigration cases now surpassing 1 million, a final decision can take years.
The asylum division at Citizenship and Immigration Services has faced heavy pressure from the White House and from Ken Cuccinelli, who was named acting director of the agency in June. John L. Lafferty, asylum division chief for six years, recently was reassigned to a service center and replaced on an acting basis by Andrew Davidson, who oversaw fraud detection.
Lafferty was outspoken about his directorate being forced to implement dramatic changes to U.S. immigration policy with what he said was little to no advance notice or consultation. Knowles, the union representative, called Lafferty's reassignment "diplomatic exile."
All decisions made so far by Border Patrol agents at the "credible fear" stage have been reviewed by a supervisory asylum officer before they were issued, according to the records obtained by The Times.
But critics of the training program worry that the administration will use it to get around requirements for asylum officers and supervisors to have special training and extensive experience – with comparatively inexperienced and less-trained Border Patrol agents in effect policing themselves rather than having their decisions reviewed by a Citizenship and Immigration Services supervisory officer.
Internal communications obtained by The Times indicate Border Patrol agents appear to have already stepped outside their allowed roles.
Last Thursday, Ashley Caudill-Mirillo, deputy chief of the asylum division at Citizenship and Immigration Services, wrote to leaders in the field stressing that agents could only screen credible-fear claims from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and "under no circumstances" should they interview Cubans.
"There are no exceptions to this rule," she said, adding that officials "may follow up with you if it is found these assignments occurred in the event we are asked to explain."
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