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U.S. to start interviewing asylum-seekers at two Texas detention sites under new policy

U.S. immigration authorities next week will begin to interview certain asylum-seekers at two Texas detention facilities under a new Biden administration policy that aims to expedite the processing of migrants who ask for humanitarian protection along the southern border, U.S. officials said Thursday.

The program will start on a small scale on Tuesday, with U.S. asylum officers expected to receive a few hundred cases per month during the first implementation phase, Justice Department and Homeland Security officials said during a call with reporters, requesting anonymity to discuss the plan.

Initially, only asylum-seekers who tell U.S. border officials they plan to live near Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark or San Francisco will be enrolled in the new program, which aims to condense the asylum adjudication period from the current years-long timeframe to several months.

Migrants are apprehended by US Border Patrol and National Guard troops in Eagle Pass, Texas, on May 22, 2022.  Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images

While it will be implemented in a limited fashion initially, the rule is one the most significant attempts to overhaul the massively backlogged U.S. asylum system and represents the pillar of a plan the Biden administration hopes will allow the government to manage unprecedented levels of migrant arrivals.

The rule will allow Department of Homeland Security officers to fully adjudicate asylum cases of migrants who recently crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, as opposed to transferring all those requests to the Justice Department's immigration court system, which is overseeing over 1.7 million unresolved cases.

President Biden's appointees have said the program will allow the U.S. to more quickly grant asylum to those fleeing persecution, while expediting the deportation of migrants who don't meet the legal threshold for U.S. refuge. 

For years, government officials have said the multi-year waits for asylum decisions allow and encourage migrants fleeing economic hardship to use the asylum system to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely and simultaneously strand asylum-seekers with legitimate cases in a years-long legal limbo.

"This rule is designed to transform how asylum claims are handled at our nation's borders, to cut down unwieldy, slow-moving bureaucracy and establish a fair and efficient process in its place," a senior DHS official said Thursday.

The official said roughly 100 U.S. asylum officers have been trained to implement the first phase of the rule's implementation. They will be interviewing by telephone migrant adults held at two Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in Texas who are placed in a process known as expedited removal.

Only single adults and families traveling with children will be placed in the program since U.S. law bars the use of expedited removal on unaccompanied minors. DHS officials said they are working to provide migrants access to pro-bono attorneys before the initial screenings.

If migrants enrolled in the new program establish that they have credible fear of persecution during these telephone interviews, they will generally be released with a tracking device, a DHS document indicates. If migrants fail these interviews, they can be swiftly deported unless they ask an immigration judge to reconsider their claim.

Those asylum-seekers who pass the screenings will be required to attend an interview at an USCIS office in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark or San Francisco. The in-person interviews will take place no more than 45 days after the initial screenings. If migrants fail to attend the interviews, they will be placed in deportation proceedings, officials said.

USCIS officers would then have 60 days after that interview to deny or grant migrants asylum. Migrants who are granted asylum are allowed to stay in the U.S. and qualify for permanent residency a year after the decision.

U.S. law allows the government to grant asylum to immigrants who suffered or fear persecution in their home country because of their nationality, race, religion, political views or membership in a "particular social group."

If a migrant's asylum claim is denied at this stage, their case will be transferred to the immigration courts, which hold adversarial hearings. Judges would then be tasked with deciding within 90 days whether migrants should be ordered deported or allowed to stay because they qualify for humanitarian relief.

Migrants are apprehended by US Border Patrol and National Guard troops in Eagle Pass, Texas, on May 22, 2022.  ALLISON DINNER/AFP via Getty Images

Those ordered deported can appeal the decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals and then, if necessary, a federal court. But those appeals could take years to complete. Once migrants have final orders of deportation, ICE agents can arrest and deport them.

Only migrants processed under traditional immigration procedures will be eligible for the new asylum program. Migrants processed under a pandemic-era public health authority known as Title 42 will continue to be swiftly expelled without an opportunity to request asylum.

Since the Trump administration invoked Title 42 in March 2020, migrants have been expelled over 1.9 million times to Mexico or their home countries, DHS data show.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was supposed to end Title 42 earlier this week following a determination that the expulsions were no longer necessary to control the spread of the coronavirus, but a federal judge last week blocked that termination, saying the agency improperly ended the measure.

Texas, one of the Republican-led states that challenged Title 42's termination, is also asking a federal judge to block the new asylum rule, arguing the power to decide asylum cases should continue to rest solely with Justice Department immigration judges.

Earlier on Thursday, a bid by Republican lawmakers to nix the asylum changes failed to pass the evenly-split Senate. Mr. Biden would have vetoed the resolution anyhow, his administration said Thursday.

Muzaffar Chishti, the head of the Migration Policy Institute's New York office, said the success of the asylum overhaul plan will hinge on whether the cases of asylum-seekers enrolled in the program are processed within an average of six months, and whether they are able to access legal representation, which he noted ensures both due process and efficiency.

If immigration court cases of asylum-seekers who are rejected by USCIS "prove to be as long as the old process, that undermines the whole thing," Chishti told CBS News.

To implement the rule on a larger scale, Chishti said USCIS will need to bolster its 750-member asylum officer corps. A senior DHS official on Thursday said USCIS has enough funds to employ "just over" 1,000 asylum officers.

The slow implementation plan will help the administration address these issues, Chishti said. "If there are certain wrinkles in the program, a pilot helps you deal with them before you shoot for primetime," he added. "They are clearly not ready for primetime." 

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