The Trump administration's proposed overhaul of the U.S. asylum process, calling for more power for immigration judges and asylum officers, could hinder migrants' access to counsel in an already fast-tracked immigration system.
The proposal, posted in a 161-page rule
Wednesday night, aims to speed up procedures and raise the standards for migrants seeking protection in the U.S. at every step, while minimizing the amount of time a migrant has to consult with an attorney before facing key decisions in their case.
"It certainly sets a tone by the government that fairness, just basic day-in-court due process, is no longer valued," said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director for the Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Penn State Law, University Park, Pennsylvania.
The proposed rule, which will publish in the Federal Register on Monday, suggests a slew of changes to the U.S. asylum system that immigrant advocates say would constitute the most sweeping changes to the system yet and cut off access for the majority of applicants.
Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University Law School, said that it was as if administration officials took every precedential immigration appellate decision, executive order and policy that narrowed asylum eligibility under this administration and "wrapped them all in one huge Frankenstein rule that would effectively gut our asylum system."
Among a litany of changes, the rule, if finalized, would revise the standards to qualify for asylum and other fear-based relief, including by narrowing what types of social groups individuals can claim membership in, as well as the very definitions of "persecution" and "torture."
In doing so, the proposal effectively bars all forms of gender-based claims, for example, as well as claims from individuals fleeing domestic violence.
These tighter definitions and higher standards would make it difficult even for asylum-seekers who are represented to win their cases, attorneys said.
"I worry about how a rule like this can cause a chilling effect on private law firms, or even BigLaw, from even engaging with this work on a pro bono level because it's just so challenging and this rule only puts up those barriers even more," said Wadhia.
But for migrants without lawyers, the barrier to entry is particularly profound. For instance, the rule permits immigration judges to pretermit asylum applications, or deny an application that the judge determines doesn't pass muster before the migrant can ever appear before the court.
This could pose real challenges for migrants who may not be familiar with U.S. asylum law or even fluent in English, but who are not guaranteed attorneys in immigration court.
"If you're unrepresented, give me a break," said Lenni B. Benson, a professor at New York Law School
who founded the Safe Passage Project. "I don't think my law students understand 'nexus' even if they've studied it," she added, referring to the requirement that an individual's persecution have a "nexus" to, or be motivated by, their participation in a certain social group.
Dree Collopy of Benach Collopy LLP
, who chairs the American Immigration Lawyers Association
's asylum committee, told Law360 that she thought the pretermission authority was the most striking attack on due process in the proposal, noting that some immigration judges have asylum denial rates of 90% or higher
"Giving all judges the authority to end an asylum application with no hearing at all is pretty jaw-dropping," she said. "Those 90%-denial-rate judges are doing that with the respondent in front of them who's already testifying about the persecution they've suffered or their fear."
The proposal also allows asylum officers, who are employed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
and are not required to have earned law degrees, to deem affirmative asylum applications frivolous, and to do so based on a broader definition of "frivolous."
Currently, applicants must knowingly fabricate evidence in an asylum application for it be deemed frivolous. But the proposal would lower that standard, while expanding the definition of "frivolous" to include applications based on foreclosed law or that are considered to lack legal merit.
The penalty for a frivolous application is steep. If an immigration judge agrees that the application is frivolous under the expanded term, the applicant would be ineligible for all forms of immigration benefits in the U.S. for making a weak asylum claim, Collopy said.
"And under the new regulation, everything is a weak application," she added.
Benson also said that allowing asylum officers to deny applications conflicts with a mandate that those asylum screenings not be adversarial.
When consulting for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
during the Obama administration, Benson had once supported giving asylum officers more authority to grant asylum requests on the spot when migrants present with strong cases from the get-go. But with this proposal, DHS "took that idea," but then went "the negative way," she said.
"That, to me, fundamentally changes the nature of the asylum officer's scope of interrogation and duty and raises a fundamental fairness question," she said.
While the proposed changes each individually make it harder for foreign citizens to win asylum, they also work in tandem.
"It's difficult to look at this rule in silos," said Wadhia.
The proposal's changes kick in when migrants first enter the U.S., requiring them to clear a tougher initial screening to move forward with claims for two forms of relief known as withholding of removal or relief under the United Nations Convention Against Torture
If they manage to clear that test, rather than being referred to full immigration court hearings, they would be sent to more limited asylum-and-withholding hearings, where their eligibility for other forms of deportation relief — such as through an American relative or through a visa for crime victims — wouldn't be considered.
Within those more limited proceedings, they must then be sure not to fall into one of a number of buckets that would weigh against their request. Under the proposed rule, failing to file taxes properly or spending time in another country without first seeking protection there before arriving in the U.S. — such as during a flight layover — could tank an application.
The rule also specifically lists instances of persecution considered unfavorable to an applicant's request for protection.
Individuals persecuted for their opposition or refusal to join a criminal, terrorist or nonstate entity, for example, wouldn't qualify for asylum, and individuals tortured by a government official would not qualify for Convention Against Torture relief if the officer was acting in a "rogue" capacity.
"I can't even think of a single client I have right now that could get around this," Collopy said.
"It's a fairly well-crafted rule," said Yale-Loehr. "They clearly have been working on this for months."
But it may not be strong enough to ultimately survive a court challenge, he said.
The proposal was met with an onslaught of opposition from immigrant advocates and lawmakers, drawing sharp rebukes from Amnesty International, the American Immigration Council
and AILA, as well as from House Democrats.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who leads the committee's immigration panel, slammed the proposal in a Thursday statement as an attempt "to rewrite our immigration laws in direct contravention of duly enacted statutes and clear congressional intent."
If the rule is finalized — the timing is tight during an election year — attorneys said it would likely face a constitutional challenge alleging that it doesn't square with the due process clause by infringing on an individual's right to access the U.S. asylum system.
And while the administration will consider public feedback before the policy takes effect, attorneys said it could still be vulnerable to a court challenge claiming it violates administrative law.
Benson said the proposed rule fails to explain why its interpretation of federal immigration law should trump federal court precedent.
"They can't just do it, as much as they might like to, with the wave of a magic wand called notice-and-comment rulemaking," she said.
Yale-Loehr predicted a court challenge to the policy, if finalized, could go the way of DHS' public charge rule, which was struck down by multiple lower courts, and recently by a federal court of appeals, but was allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court
to take effect while lawsuits continued.
If the policy is in place for any amount of time, it will likely lead to migrants with strong claims for protection being turned away, attorneys said. But Yale-Loehr didn't believe it would lead to fewer asylum claims.
"If you're fleeing persecution, you're not stopping to read a 160-page rule," he said. "You're fleeing for your life, and no rule is going to change that fact."
--Editing by Kelly Duncan.