There is an overwhelming amount of bad news these days. You’ve probably heard about the coronavirus pandemic and the upheavals caused by racial injustice, but in the last couple weeks, there has also been a flurry of bad news in immigration-world. We could spend months dissecting all that has happened, but here I just want to alert you to the highlights (or low-lights) of recent developments. Without further ado, then, let’s get this over with–
(1) The Administration has proposed sweeping new regulations that would dramatically impact asylum seekers. The main targets of these changes are (as usual) asylum seekers from Central America and Mexico–people fleeing gang violence and domestic violence–and people arriving at the Southern border and requesting asylum. But the proposed changes affect all asylum seekers. For an overview, see this brief article and this more detailed analysis, both by Aaron Reichlin-Melnick.
The new rule seeks to block asylum seekers who passed through a third country to reach the U.S., who failed to pay taxes or worked without authorization, and who have more than one year of unlawful presence in the United States. It also allows judges to “pretermit” (deny) asylum cases where the applicant has not set forth a prima facia case for asylum (this will be a particular problem for pro se applicants, who may not know how to articulate a valid claim). The regulation also narrows the definitions of “particular social group” and “political opinion” in order to more effectively block people who face violence from non-state actors. Further, the regulation raises the bar as to what constitutes “persecution” under the law, and encourages denying asylum based on discretion. Many of these rules are meant to affect people who have already filed for asylum, and could not have known about these burdensome new regulations when they asked for protection. While my take on all this is not quite as negative as that of Aaron Reichlin-Melnick (I don’t think everyone who passes through a third country will be barred), there is no question that, if implemented, these regulations will block many otherwise-eligible applicants from receiving asylum.
One last point: These regulations are not yet in effect. There is a 30-day comment period and the regulations would go into effect sometime after that, assuming they are not blocked by a court. In the mean time, you can submit comments here (use reference number “EOIR Docket No. 18-0002”). Apparently, if more people comment, it will help delay the implementation of the rule, so please consider submitting a comment.
(2) Due to a massive budget shortfall, USCIS is set to furlough over 70% of its workforce by the end of July. The agency claims that its financial problems are due to the coronavirus, but most observers (including me) believe that the main reason is the Trump Administration’s anti-immigration policies, which have blocked or discouraged many people from seeking immigration benefits. Since USCIS is 97% funded by user fees, the dramatic drop in applications has left the agency broke. It’s hard to imagine how cases will move forward if so many workers are laid off. This means we can expect even longer delays for work permits, green cards, naturalization, adoptions, work visas, and many other types of immigration benefits. Exactly which services will be effected, we do not yet know, but it appears that USCIS has already suspended processing of most green card applications. Worse, the departure of so many experienced employees will likely result in long-term damage to the agency.
USCIS publicly claimed that it requested $1.2 billion from Congress and that it would pay back the money by increasing user fees by 10% (on top of other proposed fee increases). However, as of last week, “the Trump administration had still not made a formal request for any emergency funding.” One knowledgeable USCIS employee I spoke with believes that the Administration has no intention to request the money or save the agency. She believes that destroying USCIS is part of the Administration’s plan to cripple our immigration system.
You can sign a change.org petition to demand that Congress fund USCIS, so it can continue its mission.
(3) An Office of the Inspector General report revealed that the Executive Office for Immigration Review (“EOIR”), the office that oversees the nation’s Immigration Courts, had substantially mismanaged its budget for FY 2019. The OIG investigation was initiated after EOIR Director James McHenry sent an email inaccurately characterizing the state of the agency’s budget. The report found that “EOIR leadership failed to coordinate effectively with its budget staff,” that the agency failed to anticipate the cost of court interpreters even though it had the necessary information to project those costs, and that “miscommunication across EOIR” led leadership to miscalculate its expenses. The National Association of Immigration Judges (the judges’ union) characterizes the situation at EOIR as follows–
The mismanagement uncovered by OIG in yesterday’s report is only the tip of the iceberg of persistent systemic and structural failures at EOIR. EOIR has failed to implement an electronic filing system, failed to properly hire judge teams as instructed by Congress, failed to secure adequate space to properly run the court and has persistently shuffled immigration judge dockets resulting in the unprecedented backlog of over 1 million immigration court cases.
The judges also reference a recent TRAC Immigration report, which indicates that data released by EOIR about grant rates in Immigration Court is “too unreliable to be meaningful.” TRAC notes that “EOIR’s apparent reckless deletion of potentially irretrievable court records raises urgent concerns that without immediate intervention the agency’s sloppy data management practices could undermine its ability to manage itself, thwart external efforts at oversight, and leave the public in the dark about essential government activities.”
(4) Speaking of EOIR, in a court-packing move that would make FDR blush, Director McHenry offered buyouts to nine BIA Board Members appointed prior to the Trump Administration. Though the agency denies it, this was a clear effort to further stack the Board with Members favorable to the Administration’s agenda. Indeed, the move follows an earlier decision to elevate six Immigration Judges with unusually high asylum denial rates to the Board of Immigration Appeals. For more on the politicization of the BIA, check out this posting by Judge Paul Schmidt, a former Chairman of the BIA with first-hand experience of an earlier purge at EOIR.
(5) We have been hearing news on our immigration lawyer list serves about a possible expansion of the non-immigrant visa suspension and an additional attack on asylum seekers. Nothing is known for sure, but it seems the Administration is planning to ban some non-immigrant visas (H-1b, H-2b, L-1, and certain J-1 visas) for a limited period, and to limit OPT for F-1 students. Also, we are hearing about the possible “rescission of employment authorization for asylees, refugees, and TPS holders that would face significant legal hurdles” (the quote is from my list serve; it is not an official announcement, and it is strange, as asylees and refugees are entitled to a work permit under the law). We do not yet know what this means, but my best guess is that the Administration will try to block EADs for asylum applicants (not asylees) who have a one-year bar issue.
(6) While this is not (yet) bad news, we are anticipating a decision in a Supreme Court case where the Trump Administration is attempting to end DACA (Deferred Action for Child Arrivals), the Obama-era program created to protect from deportation certain people who arrived in the U.S. as children. As many as 800,000 people could be effected. Given how the Court has ruled in past immigration cases, I’m not optimistic about the result, but we will have to wait and see. I’ve written about asylum for DACA recipients here, though the new proposed asylum rules would greatly reduce this already difficult option.
(7) Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a rule barring colleges from granting coronavirus relief funds to DACA students. While Secretary DeVos claims that she is simply following the law as written by Congress, it seems that the law could have been interpreted to help the DACA students (and a substantial number of Congress people have protested the Secretary’s move). Since the pattern of this Administration is to harm the weak and vulnerable, it’s not surprising that Secretary DeVos interpreted the law in a way to exclude these students. The Secretary’s decision is the subject of a lawsuit, and so we will see what the courts decide.
Oy vey, That is more than enough for now. We can hope that courts will block some of these rules, but we also need to work to prevent a second term for this Administration, which has consistently lied about and attacked non-citizens and other vulnerable people. En la lucha!