This article, featuring our client Doug Stephens, was originally published here.
Asylum Officers Rebel Against Trump Policies They Say Are Immoral And Illegal
It only took Doug Stephens two days to decide: He wasn’t going to implement President Trump’s latest policy to restrict immigration, known as Remain in Mexico. The asylum officer wouldn’t interview any more asylum seekers only to send them back to danger in Mexico.
As a federal employee, refusing to implement the government policy probably meant that he’d be fired, and an end to his career as a public servant. He’d only been assigned five of the interviews so far. But it was five too many — to the trained attorney, the policy officially termed “Migrant Protection Protocols” was not only unethical, it was against the law.
When Stephens told his supervisor in San Francisco his decision, he said he was stunned.
“I told him, ‘You don’t understand. I’m not doing these interviews,’” Stephens said, speaking publicly for the first time in an exclusive interview. “I think they’re illegal. They’re definitely immoral. And I’m not doing them.’”
Stephens is believed to be the first asylum officer to formally refuse to conduct interviews under the program, according to Michael Knowles, a spokesman for the National CIS Council, the union that represents some 13,000 asylum officers and other employees of Citizenship and Immigration Services worldwide.
But he isn’t alone. Across the country, asylum officers are calling in sick, requesting transfers, retiring earlier than planned and quitting, all to resist this and other Trump administration immigration policies that they view as illegal, according to Stephens, as well as other asylum officers and officials.
In a collaboration with the radio program “This American Life,” the Los Angeles Times takes an exclusive, front-line look at one of the Trump administration’s most successful policies to restrict asylum — the Migrant Protection Protocols — from the perspective of the asylum officers forced to implement it.
The asylum officers’ primary job is to make sure that the U.S. government is not returning people to harm in their home countries, a foundational principle in both U.S. and international law. But under MPP, instead of allowing asylum seekers who come to the southern border to wait in the U.S. for their immigration hearings, U.S. officials are forcing them to wait in Mexico.
Since the Trump administration announced the policy in December, U.S. officials have pushed roughly 60,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico, to wait in areas that the U.S. State Department considers some of the most dangerous in the world.
While U.S. officials downplay the danger in Mexico, kidnappings, rape and other violence against asylum seekers under the program are widespread and well documented, according to other officials, advocates, lawyers and academic researchers.
Homeland Security officials concede that the program is designed to discourage asylum claims. The president is running for reelection on renewed promises to limit immigration. Under the policy, only 11 asylum seekers have been granted some kind of relief, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC database.
The half-dozen asylum officers interviewed by The Times say that in almost every interview they’ve conducted under the policy, the asylum seeker expressed a fear of returning to Mexico — many said they’d been harmed there already. But under the new standards, the officers say they had to return them anyway.
“What’s my moral culpability in that?” said an asylum officer who’s conducted nearly 100 interviews. She requested anonymity because she feared retaliation. “My signature’s on that paperwork. And that’s something now that I live with.”
The asylum officers rebelling against Trump’s immigration policies say they run counter to the laws passed by Congress, as well as their oath to the Constitution and extensive training, which includes how to detect fraud or any potential national security concerns.
Under U.S. law, migrants have the right to request asylum. Some 80% of asylum seekers pass the first step in the lengthy process, an interview with an asylum officer that’s known as a credible-fear screening. Congress set a low standard for the officers to use at this initial stage, to minimize the risk of sending someone back to harm, or even death. But ultimately, only about 15% of applicants win asylum before an immigration judge.
Trump and his top officials use this difference between the percentage of asylum seekers who pass the first step versus the percentage who ultimately win asylum to claim that asylum itself is a “hoax” or “big fat con job.”
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, has publicly criticized the officers, saying they approve too many requests and oppose Trump’s initiatives for partisan reasons. On Wednesday, Cuccinelli was named acting deputy Homeland Security secretary.
Cuccinelli’s spokesperson stopped responding to requests for an interview. But The Times asked Cuccinelli during an October media breakfast about concerns from officers.
“So long as we’re in the position of putting in place what we believe to be legal policies that haven’t been found to be otherwise,” Cuccinelli said, “we fully expect them to implement those faithfully and sincerely and vigorously.”
Citizenship and Immigration Services also declined requests for data on staffing for the Homeland Security agency, and the asylum section specifically, to try to quantify what officers and officials called an “exodus” primarily because of the policy.
In another sign of widespread discomfort among the asylum officers, the union representing them has filed “friend of the court” briefs in lawsuits against the administration, arguing that its immigration policies — including MPP — are illegal.
Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the ongoing litigation against the policy. The panel’s ruling on whether the policy is legal is pending.
When Stephens refused to do the interviews, his supervisors started disciplinary proceedings, issuing him formal warnings, he described at the time. He decided to quit, but not before he sent out a legal memo he’d drafted arguing why the policy violates the law, which he sent to his entire San Francisco office, supervisors, the union and a U.S. senator. He later got his own legal representation, at Government Accountability Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit.
He says he’s still trying to draw attention to the program, encouraging others to speak out against it.
“You’re literally sending people back to be raped and killed,” he said. “That’s what this is.”