The Trump administration is implementing an experimental pilot program along the southern border designed to fast-track the processing and deportation of asylum seekers from all over the world, requiring them to complete their entire proceedings in a matter of days while in detention.
Immigration attorneys in the El Paso sector of the U.S.-Mexico border only recently became aware of the new initiative, a joint effort between the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, which oversees the nation's immigration courts.
"It should come as no surprise that the president is doing exactly what he said he would do. DHS has partnered with DOJ to conduct a pilot program to expedite the processing of aliens while providing protections and due process for all," a Homeland Security spokesperson told CBS News.
According to a Homeland Security official, the pilot program in the El Paso sector is a "whole of government approach" to expedite the processing of single migrant men and migrant families subject to a regulation allowed by the Supreme Court last month that renders most non-Mexican migrants ineligible for asylum when they reach the U.S.
The existence of the pilot program was first reported by The Washington Post.
The Department of Homeland Security has not publicly revealed specifics about how the secretive program is operating, but El Paso-based immigration lawyers who've found out about it say it denies migrants due process, restricts access to counsel and effectively ensures their prompt deportation.
According to the attorneys, migrants subject to the pilot initiative, which they believe began this month, are not placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, another experimental and controversial policy the administration implemented in late 2018. The program, also referred to as "Remain in Mexico," has required more than 55,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the duration of their court proceedings.
Instead, the attorneys say, these asylum-seeking migrants encountered along the El Paso sector are detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and quickly given a fear of persecution screening while in the agency's custody.
The policy is a departure from previous procedures because asylum seekers not returned to Mexico were typically detained by Border Patrol for a few days or weeks and then transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, where they would undergo what is called "credible fear" interviews that are overseen by asylum officers.
Lawyers have been typically granted access to clients in ICE facilities to offer them advice before the interviews, but under the pilot program, they are not allowed to see and speak to their clients, who are detained in a Border Patrol station. Detained migrants can request phone calls, but lawyers are not allowed to call their clients in detention.
"The biggest problem we're going to have with all of this is that as attorneys, we've never been given access to Border Patrol facilities," Imelda Maynard, the senior immigration attorney at the Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico, told CBS News. "So, I don't know exactly how we're supposed to meet with clients or talk to them."
Not only do migrants not have access to counsel during their fear of persecution interviews, but the screenings under the experimental initiative are also more difficult to pass, the attorneys said.
This is because most of the recently encountered migrants are not eligible for asylum because of the regulation allowed by Supreme Court which restricts access to the asylum system to migrants who traveled through a third country to reach the U.S. and failed to seek protection there.
The migrants under the pilot program can only seek lesser forms of relief known as withholding of removal and protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. For these protections, officers conducting the interviews seek a higher probability that the migrants will face persecution in their homeland.
"That's going to be incredibly difficult because you are going in unrepresented," Maynard said.
Homeland Security did not say whether these screenings are being conducted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officers, who have been historically in charge of them, or Border Patrol agents. Under another controversial pilot program, the administration has been training Border Patrol agents to oversee fear of persecution screenings.
If they fail these more difficult interviews, which attorneys say most migrants will because of the little time they are given to prepare and the heighten standard to pass them, migrants may request to have an immigration judge review the assessment.
A Justice Department official confirmed to CBS News that immigration judges stationed at the court at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico are conducting reviews of credible and reasonable fear interviews of migrants detained in El Paso via telephone.
Citing federal law, the official said those reviews are being conducted "as expeditiously as possible" within seven days and "to the maximum extent practicable within 24 hours."
If the judge upholds the negative assessment made by the officer who oversaw the fear of persecution interview, the migrant is typically quickly transferred to ICE for deportation.
Taylor Levy, an independent immigration lawyer in El Paso, said a migrant mother and her six-month-old child who she was helping were recently placed in the program and deported to their home country within 15 days.
Levy denounced the experimental initiative as an effectively insurmountable barrier for asylum seekers to access America's asylum system. She said the migrants who are subject to it are being held in a Border Patrol station, which the government constantly has said is not a facility designed to house families or children.
"We have people in the epitome of the 'kids in cages' type of environment, the exact same holding cells that all the Congress people have come down to observe and be horrified with," Levy said. "We have people in those conditions who are then being rushed through a credible fear process with zero legal orientation and zero meaningful access to counsel."
Since learning of the change this week, Maynard said she and other attorneys have been forced to improvise and figure out ways to help existing clients and future clients who are placed in the pilot program.
"This is another one of these programs where we, as legal services providers, were caught completely unaware," she said. "We're all scrambling right now."