(Washington, DC) – The Department of Homeland Security should not expand expedited removal from the United States for asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said today. Plans to expand the program from its current limit of people caught within 100 miles of the border who arrived within a 14-day period to a nationwide dragnet for anyone who cannot prove they have been in the country for more than 90 days were reported on July 17, 2017, by the Washington Post based on a 13-page internal agency memo.

A US border patrol agent walks along the border fence separating Mexico from the United States near Calexico, California, U.S. February 8, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
Human Rights Watch has documented cases and gathered information that points to abusive treatment by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that violates the right to seek asylum. On July 12, plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit alleging that Customs and Border Protection agents violated US and international law by refusing to allow the plaintiffs and others to seek asylum in the United States, including by using threats, force, and misrepresentations.

“There is mounting evidence that Customs and Border Protection agents are routinely denying people the right to seek asylum,” said Alison Leal Parker, US program co-director at Human Rights Watch. “Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but everyone who expresses a fear of persecution has a right to fair consideration of their claims.”

The Department of Homeland Security should prioritize efforts to address abuses that pervade Customs and Border Protection, Human Rights Watch said. Homeland Security officials should also examine mounting evidence that Customs and Border Protection agents unlawfully turn away large numbers of asylum seekers at the border under the existing expedited removal procedures.

Customs and Border Protection officers are obligated under US law to refer people who express an intention to seek protection to an asylum officer from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The asylum officer, in turn, conducts a more in-depth evaluation of whether the person’s fear is “credible” – that is, whether it might qualify the person for asylum or other protections. If Customs and Border Protection agents fail to identify people who are afraid to return to their country, they can be summarily deported, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the Customs and Border Protection Inspector’s Field Manual, “If the alien indicates in any fashion or at any time during the inspections process, that he or she has a fear of persecution, or that he or she has suffered or may suffer torture, you are required to refer the alien to an asylum officer for a credible fear determination…. Inspectors should consider verbal as well as non-verbal cues given by the alien.”

Human Rights Watch has obtained complaints under the Freedom of Information Act alleging that Border Patrol officers threatened migrants with having their children taken away if they sought asylum, sexually assaulted one migrant, refused to record migrants’ expressed fears on the appropriate governmental form, or otherwise denied them access to further consideration of their claims. Human Rights Watch has also gathered accounts from seven families who told Human Rights Watch separately that they had told Customs and Border Protection agents that they were afraid to return to their country of origin but were not granted access to the asylum process.

There is a growing body of evidence that seems to indicate that such practices are widespread. Human Rights First has documented numerous incidents in which Customs and Border Protection officers have allegedly turned asylum seekers away at the border, and released an audio recording of what appears to be one such incident on July 13, 2017.

A 2015 Guardian story documented deaths after deportation to Central America, and a 2014 Human Rights Watch report documented scores of cases of people returned to harm’s way in Honduras after being turned away by Customs and Border Protection agents during the expedited removal process.

The US immigration system is rife with other abuses as well. US law mandates the needless and excessive detention of immigrants who do not belong behind bars, and lacks adequate mechanisms to weigh the deep connections many immigrants have to their US families and communities when deciding whether to deport people. Without reform, any expansion of expedited removal will serve to multiply the impact of these harmful and misguided policies.

Rather than ramping up the enforcement capacity of a broken and abusive CBP, Congress and DHS should work together to rein in its worst excesses

Alison Leal Parker

Co-Director of US Program

The Washington Post report about the internal Homeland Security memo cited two administration officials who confirmed that an expansion of expedited removal is under review. The Washington Post quoted Joanne F. Talbot, a Homeland Security spokesperson, as saying, “Anyone who is surprised that the administration is considering lawfully expanding the use of expedited removal has not been paying attention.”

Dramatic expansion of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is also being promoted through a US$1.9 billion increase in its appropriation bill over last year’s budget. The increased funding would be used to hire hundreds of new Customs and Border Protection agents and keep many thousands of additional immigrants in detention. It passed the House subcommittee on July 18 and will move to full consideration in the House. The Senate will also consider appropriations legislation before the end of July.

“Rather than ramping up the enforcement capacity of a broken and abusive CBP, Congress and DHS should work together to rein in its worst excesses,” Parker said. “Customs and Border Protection first needs to prove that it can do its job, which means both protecting US borders and ensuring that people who fear for their lives if returned to their countries get fair consideration.”