For thirty-five years, Annunciation House has offered hospitality to the poor in migration. Our guest population has evolved, but one theme remains constant: the threatened continue to seek protection in the United States.
Those who seek asylum have the greatest urgency in seeking protection. Asylum, a legal vehicle for those whose very lives are at risk, ideally protects those who articulate a “well-founded fear of persecution” and are thus “unwilling and unable to return to their home country.”
The basic right to life, and thus the right to seek asylum, is enumerated in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, this fundamental right is being lost in translation when applied on the border. For many immigrants without legal status in the U.S., the first point of contact to accessing the judicial process may happen when the immigrant presents at a U.S. Port of Entry or is detained by Border Patrol after entering without inspection. Denying immigrants expressing fear for their lives a Credible or Reasonable Fear Interview leaves the individual isolated from the court system and violates both international and domestic law. We are profoundly concerned about the denial of the rights of asylum seekers.
Today we expose specific instances of attempts to intimidate asylum seekers at Ports of Entry as well as the criminalization of immigrants because they continue to pursue their asylum claim. We go public with these abuses out of a profound concern that these specific cases may be emblematic of systemic practices that in the end deny individuals, who may already have suffered horrific losses, the fundamental right to seek protection.
To this end, we call for the following:
- That at the moment an individual expresses fear – those who speak about the killings of their family or threats made to their lives or the lives of their families – he or she categorically be processed for a Credible or Reasonable Fear Interview.
- That Credible or Reasonable Fear Interviews be conducted by an Asylum Officer of the USCIS and not agents with ICE, CBP, or Border Patrol.
The asylum process is predicated on Credible and Reasonable Fear interviews. These interviews establish the validity of the persecution claim and catalyze the court process in which a decision can be adjudicated. The law is clear. A person is automatically guaranteed the right to a Credible Fear Interview the moment fear is expressed. The USCIS manual states:
“If a CBP Officer determines that the arriving individual is subject to expedited removal, the CBP Officer is required by procedure to notify the individual about the expedited removal process, and take a sworn statement concerning the individual’s admissibility. When taking the sworn statement, the CBP Officer is required by procedure to read a statement30 explaining the right to seek protection in the United States and is also required by procedure to ask the individual a set of questions31 to determine whether the individual fears return to his or her country and is seeking protection in the United States. The CBP Officer records the answer to each question on the form.” (USCIS Chapter 5).
- Cease the criminal prosecution of individuals who were denied Credible or Reasonable Fear Interviews and removed or who were intimidated into signing volunteer departures and then re-present at Ports of Entry or who attempt to enter without inspection.
- We cite two examples that are emblematic of this type of abuse. Both Manses Cano Bonilla and Rosa Hilda Carrera have suffered undue duress, all while simply trying to seek asylum. Both Mr. Cano and Ms. Carrera expressed fear but were ignored and returned to their home country. Each reentered, again articulating fear. Both were then criminally charged in Federal Court and convicted for entering without inspection. They are now convicted felons even though both were found to have valid asylum claims by Asylum Officers. The implications of a felony conviction on an individual’s record are horrendous. They become ineligible for asylum relief and must seek Withholding of Removal or relief under the Convention Against Torture. They become ineligible for bond and must pursue their relief from detention, a process that can take from many months to years.
- We specifically demand that in the cases of both Mr. Cano and Mrs. Carrera, they be released on parole, released on recognizance, or at an absolute minimum, they be allowed to post a reasonable bond so that they can be released from detention and may continue to work with their attorneys in pursuit of immigration relief. The ability to release both of these individuals is categorically within the authority of ICE. It is particularly disconcerting that once a mistake has been made in how an individual was processed, as was the case for both Mr. Cano and Ms. Carrera, it is incredibly difficult to get ICE to rectify that mistake.
We fear that the process of branding asylum seekers as convicted felons, and thus making them ineligible for release, is utilized as a strategy to make detainees’ lives so unbearable that they finally withdraw their petition for asylum and sign a deportation order in an attempt to end their suffering.
- Finally, and most importantly, we explicitly call on Customs and Border Patrol at Ports of Entry (POE) to guarantee that the practice by some officers of intimidating and threatening families seeking asylum ceases. We demand that officers end the pattern of telling parents that they will be locked up for long periods of time, that their children will be separated from them and locked up in separate detention facilities, or that they will be sent to different geographical areas in the U.S. We call on CBP to ensure the credible training of officers in the processing of individuals expressing fear at Ports of Entry and a more viable supervision of line officers so as to guarantee that individuals expressing fear are scheduled for Credible Fear Interviews.