A new report published by the office of U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) examines President Trump's crackdown on immigration and refugees seeking asylum in the United States, characterizing his collective string of immigration policy actions as a "gutting" of the country's asylum system.
During a conference call today, Merkley described the series of "hurdles" the Trump Administration has erected that people must overcome to attain asylum, making it nearly impossible for families to come into the United States legally. The report says the White House has focused on restricting legal immigration from Latinx countries.
"This is just one obstacle after another, making it incredibly difficult," said Merkley. "In essence, the administration has snuffed out Lady Liberty's torch, and we have a responsibility to re-light it."
An executive order signed by Trump two years ago lowered the number of refugees admitted into the country annually from 110,000 to 50,000. But Merkley describes Trump's program, and the ways he continues to undermine protocol, as a blockade that further lowers that figure.
Merkley's report hones in on the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) policy, also known as the "Remain in Mexico" program, that's run under the Trump administration. It sends asylum seekers back to Mexico while they go through the asylum-seeking process.
Merkley described the convoluted and lengthy process the administration requires asylum seekers to go through: a refugee reaches the border, is turned away and put on a list of potential asylum seekers, from there might be allowed to take part in a "credible fear interview" (the standards for proving credible fear are becoming increasingly narrow) and then can argue their case in law if they're able to gather evidence and find a lawyer, and are then granted a hearing with an asylum officer.
Making these hurdles even more difficult, Merkley said, is that families are often put in homeless shelters or living on the streets throughout the process and might not be easily located to communicate and follow through with the various steps.
“Without communications, they may not make it to their interview,” said Merkley. “If you’re on the streets, you haven’t been able to access a lawyer. You don’t know what kind of information to present.”
The report shows that under Trump's direction, detention of asylum seekers on the southern border has nearly doubled since 2016, without adequate expansion of facilities or safety and sanitary protocol.
"We are, at this moment, turning away thousands of adults and children at the southern border, leaving them in extraordinarily hostile and dangerous circumstances," Merkley said. "It is evil and wrong."
The report notes that part of the administration's strategy for deterring potential asylum seekers is to broadcast the increasingly unforgiving stance on immigration enforcement at the border—discouraging refugees from entering the country.
"In internal documents, administration officials theorized that reports of family members being arrested and separated from children would reach potential asylum seekers in Central America, deterring them from presenting themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border so that they could spare their families those circumstances," the report reads.
Merkley's report details an intentional series of efforts to undermine the position of trained asylum officers, who are responsible for deeming whether an asylum seeker is admitted into the country: those efforts include quietly halting a standardized test required for officers, allowing officer decisions to be reviewed and approved by political supervisors, and replacing a portion of the trained asylum officers with border patrol officers untrained in the specifics of asylum procedures.
The report notes that asylum officers opposed the changes. One whistleblower wrote that the program "both discriminates and penalizes," adding that the "Implementation of the [program] is clearly designed to further this administration's racist agenda of keeping Hispanic and Latino populations from entering the United States."