According to a letter from four members of Congress to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, a “recent disclosure [by USCIS] regarding the number of aliens found to have a ‘credible fear’ in cases where the terrorism bar to asylum eligibility may have applied raised the concern that hundreds of known and suspected aliens with terrorist connections may be attempting to take advantage of our country’s asylum system.”
The “recent disclosure” from USCIS to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform revealed that “the terrorism bar to asylum eligibility may be applicable to 299 aliens who were found to have a ‘credible fear’ of persecution in the first four months of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, and to 339 aliens who were found to have a ‘credible fear’ in FY 2014.” The four Congressman–Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Trey Gowdy (R-SC), and Ron DeSantis (R-FL)–requested more information about the 638 aliens in question, including each aliens’ confidential A-file and whether and by what authority each alien was released from detention.
First, what’s this all about?
When an alien arrives at the border (or at an airport), she can request asylum. Rather than admit her into the U.S., the alien is usually detained and scheduled for a “credible fear” interview–a preliminary evaluation of eligibility for asylum. The large majority of aliens “pass” the credible fear interview. Their cases are then transferred to an Immigration Judge and–in most, but not all, cases–they are released from detention. Aliens who do not pass the credible fear interview are deported.
In 638 credible fear interviews, conducted since October 2013, the alien said something or the U.S. government had some information that may have implicated a Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Ground (“TRIG”). This could have been something relatively benign (the alien paid extortion money to a gang) or something of great concern (the alien is Osama bin Laden’s best friend). We don’t know–the TRIGs are very broad (as I’ve discussed here).
One piece of information that we do have is the list of countries that send us the most credible fear applicants: El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Ecuador. These are not normally countries we associate with terrorism. However, these nations have major problems with gang and cartel violence, so we might suspect that many of the TRIG issues raised in credible fear interviews relate to paying extortion to criminal groups. Again, though, we really don’t know.
So what’s the solution? In their letter, the four Congressman request more information from DHS about the TRIG issues raised during credible fear interviews. This seems to me a perfectly reasonable request. We need to know more so we can better understand what is happening, who is coming here, and how we can make more appropriate policy decisions.
I do have a few concerns about the letter, however. At least some of the Congressmen making the request have demonstrated a clear bias against asylum seekers. Since everything these days is subject to spin, I worry that the Congressmen will use the data–no matter how benign–to stir up more anti-immigrant feelings and place further restrictions on asylum seekers. DHS should not let that happen. DHS can do its own evaluation of the data and release a report to the public (it would be difficult to make the raw data publicly available due to confidentiality issues).
Another concern I have is that the Congressmen are requesting the A-files for individual asylum seekers. Pursuant to 8 C.F.R. § 208.6, these files are confidential, though they can be shared within the government for legitimate purposes. While I believe that the Congressmen have no intention of breaching confidentiality, we do not know what safeguards they have put into place to protect the individual asylum seekers. Who will be reviewing the 638 files (that will be a big job)? Interns? Regular staff members? What training do they have? Do they have a security clearance? Where will the files be kept? How will the results of the study be released so as to ensure confidentiality for individuals? What will happen to the files at the end of the process? These questions need to be answered before DHS releases the A files to Congress.
Finally, the letter demands that the files be turned over before COB on June 3, 2015–two weeks after the letter was written. How the Congressmen expect DHS to gather this information and turn it over on time–while ensuring confidentiality–is beyond me. The seemingly impossible time frame attached to the letter detracts from its credibility. If the Congressmen are serious about gathering and analyzing this data (which is a very worthy goal), they should approach the problem in a more reasonable way. For example, they could involve the Congressional Research Service, which has the expertise to review and analyze raw data from USCIS.
I have written before that we need more data about who is seeking asylum in the United States, how they get here, why they are requesting asylum, and the decision-making process itself. Such information would make our country safer and our asylum system better. Congress has an important role to play in this process and so does DHS. Hopefully, for once, the two can play nice together and get the job done.