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Senators roll out pilot program to speed asylum claims

Plan would streamline process for migrant families who have legitimate claims

Republican senators behind the asylum proposal include Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Republican senators behind the asylum proposal include Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A group of nine senators — six Republicans and three Democrats — is proposing a new pilot program to better manage the influx of families seeking asylum at the southwest border.

“Operation Safe Return,” as the group calls it, would be the first bipartisan step to address the situation at the border, the senators said in a letter Thursday to Trump administration officials. Their plan would streamline the process by which migrant families who have legitimate claims for asylum are processed at the border, and swiftly weed out those who do not.

The plan could be implemented without new legislation, using existing authorities, the senators said.

“Through this program, we expect that we can meet our commitments to humanitarian protections while ensuring proper efficiency, timeliness, order, and fairness in the credible fear screening process,” the senators wrote in the letter. “We also expect that Operation Safe Return will help us examine current process deficiencies, identify required increases in capacity, and understand the drivers of migration.”

[Trump extends order on asylum seekers at southwest border]

The program would apply to families who have presented themselves at a port of entry or turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents after crossing the border. It would set up time limits for how the process would unfold following their apprehension. It wasn’t immediately clear how the program would intersect with the new rule the Trump administration recently rolled out banning most individuals from seeking asylum in the United States if they have transited first through a third country.

Here’s how the process at the border would go under Operation Safe Return: Within three days of entry, Border Patrol agents would conduct a “detailed, fair, and accurate” interview with migrant families, with proper access to translation services where applicable. Those who do not express fear would be placed in expedited removal proceedings.

Border Patrol would then inform people in its custody who express a fear of persecution what lies ahead within the next 48-hour period, and provide a list of pro bono attorneys they could consult.

In four days, the family would be taken together to an ICE family detention facility, and screened for medical conditions within 12 hours of arrival. Pediatricians or nurses would be available to screen and attend to children.

Within nine days of entry, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers would conduct a credible fear interview — in-person, wherever possible. Within a day, the results would be relayed to the relevant federal agencies. Within two weeks, family units who have passed the interview would be allowed to continue to seek asylum through the existing process. The ones who fail, and have been affirmed in that decision by an immigration judge, would be removed to their home countries.

Republican senators behind the proposal include Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, as well as Michael B. Enzi of  Wyoming and John Cornyn, R-Texas. The Democrats are Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, Joe Manchin III, D-West Virginia, and Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

Johnson noted in a statement that the goal of the pilot was to “reduce the overwhelming flow of illegal migration and convert it to a controllable flow of legal immigrants.”

In a statement about the proposal, Sinema affirmed that in signing off on it, she was “committed to fixing the broken immigration system, finding solutions to the crisis at the southern border, and ensuring migrants are treated fairly and humanely.”

The proposal follows a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee roundtable Wednesday in which members heard the perspectives of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, a bipartisan panel of experts.

The council released an interim emergency report detailing conditions at the border and policies needed to address them. In particular, the report noted that the “large-scale influx of [family units] is new, having increased dramatically in the last year by 600 percent.”

Immigrant advocacy groups expressed grave disappointment that three Senate Democrats signed off on Thursday’s letter on the pilot program, which they say would fast-track deportations of vulnerable people.

“The proposal is shrouded in language that purports to support efficiency and due process but may actually undermine the asylum process,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “You cannot expedite deportations in a system that is this badly rigged against asylum seekers without sending asylum seekers back to harm.”

One big problem, Altman said, is that Operation Safe Return would afford a great deal of discretion to Border Patrol officers, at a time when the agency is facing immense scrutiny. (In recent weeks, reports of migrant abuse and the participation of some Border Patrol agents in a Facebook group with lewd and violent content has earned public ire.)

This bipartisan proposal would force asylum seekers “to put forth a very complex legal claim in the most stressful circumstances,” Altman said, and then “railroad” them into expedited deportation if they do not succeed. Instead, she added, the administration should be focusing on the guidelines set by international human rights groups that call for a community-based case management approach to migrants and legal support.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, pointed to a recent BuzzFeed News report that Ken Cuccinelli, the recently appointed head of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, has already issued a directive reducing the 48-hour wait time to conduct the credible fear screening to 24 hours. Thursday’s bipartisan proposal would only speed up that process, Reichlin-Melnick said, for people who have already undergone immense trauma.

“Everyone agrees that efficiency should be increased, but no one should be rushing through a process where their lives are at stake,” he said.

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