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Having failed to force the courts to bend to his will, Trump has now resorted to backdoor and covert measures outside of legislation to keep asylum seekers from crossing the border. We speak to Helena Olea of Alianza Americas about the new tactics

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JACQUELINE LUQMAN Hi, I’m Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network. Federal judges have stopped several of Trump’s initiatives to make it harder for people to seek asylum at the southern border. Having failed to force the courts to bend to his will, Trump has now resorted to backdoor and covert measures to keep asylum seekers from crossing the border. Will these measures stand up under public scrutiny, or will they draw more legal challenges and stall as the rest of his efforts to build that wall have? Here to talk about this today is Helena Olea. Helena is an international human rights lawyer serving as Alianza America’s Human Rights Adviser. She is also a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Departments of Criminology, Law and Justice, and Latin American and Latino Studies. Helena, thank you for joining me today.

HELENA OLEA Thank you for the invitation, Jacqueline.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN So let’s talk about the first of Trump’s potential measures, which is the processing fee that he wants to impose on applicants seeking asylum. Critics say that these fees would put the process out of reach for many people, but in the presidential memorandum announcing the proposal, Trump said that the fee would not exceed the cost of processing the applications. Helena, what is missing from the presidential memo that we need to understand about this potential rule?

HELENA OLEA Well, we are basically failing to understand the premise of asylum. Asylum is an international protection. So it is ludicrous to believe that it is possible to charge a fee. It is the commitment of the states to offer protection to any person who’s fearing for their lives and who enter another country, to seek the protection that they are not finding in their own country. It’s not a matter of fees. Fees should never be charged in the case of an asylum application.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN So we’re talking about an issue of human rights law, international law, and not necessarily an issue of how much of a fee is reasonable, or how much it costs to process applications for asylum, correct?

HELENA OLEA We are. There is an international human right to seek asylum. And it is precisely that part of the puzzle, what the Trump administration is failing to understand. He seems to believe that seeking asylum is an option, among many others that these individuals have. And so, when he believes of different ways to try to stop them from coming to the US, he’s simply undermining the whole structure of the international human rights and international refugee law system. That is a basic element of this discussion that is simply outside of his full scope of understanding of this issue.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN So there’s also mention in that presidential memo of eliminating the ability of asylum seekers to work through receiving a work permit while they’re waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. Why is it important that asylum seekers be able to work while waiting for their claims to be adjudicated, and what problems are created if this ability to work is eliminated?

HELENA OLEA There are two key elements. First, asylum seekers need to support themselves. They already struggle during those first 180 days where they do not have a work authorization. And so, many of them, depending on the networks, the family networks that they may have in the country, community ties on civil society organizations that are trying to support them while they wait for that gap of 180 days— So if they will never be able to work, they will be dependent on others. They will be, something that the Trump administration usually refers to, a public charge. That makes no sense, but on the other hand, and this is very important, these are individuals who are trying to move ahead with their lives. And so for them, from a psychological perspective for their own well-being, it’s very important that they have the opportunity to work so that they feel that they can support themselves, they feel they are productive, and they can integrate easier into the United States. That should be, in many of those cases, the countries where they end up living the rest of their life.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN So, that brings up an issue that is often raised by people who are opposed to the current immigration and asylum system, and that is that immigration seekers and asylum seekers would be potential drains on the public support system, that they would receive welfare, that they receive Social Security benefits. How true is that, especially in light of this rule change that Trump is trying to implement where he would take away the ability of asylum seekers to work?

HELENA OLEA It’s contrary to what the evidence shows. Actually, what we observe is that migrants participate in the labor force at higher rates than the nationals of the country. So they want to work, they do not want to depend on welfare of any kind, and they understand the importance of working to integrate into the United States. But he seems to believe that many of the asylum claims are frivolous and that what the individuals are actually seeking is a work authorization. I think that, again, it is an incorrect understanding of the conditions of the countries of origin and of the reasons why many of these individuals are coming to the US.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN I’m glad you brought up the conditions that people are fleeing in their countries of origin, because the other potential measures that Trump has suggested, that are even more covert than the rules that were laid out in the presidential memo, are these revised training guidelines for asylum officers. Apparently, the Trump administration has created a lesson plan for training thousands of Customs and Border Patrol agents to now hear asylum claims that are currently heard by US Customs and Immigration Services officials, who are specially trained in asylum and refugee law, to determine whether a migrant has a credible fear of returning to their home country. The first question I have to ask you, Helena, is, is this normal procedure for a president to revise training guidelines and create lesson plans for federal agencies?

HELENA OLEA There are lesson plans—So this is really an updating of an existing lesson plan and in that sense, it is ideal that public officials are well-trained and that they understand the current developments of immigration law so that they can apply the correct standards when they are conducting the screening process. The problem is the intention behind the changes that we see in this revised version of the lesson plan. What we observe is that, in every single point, what they are trying to do is to increase some standards, to add another possibility of considering other evidence or information that the asylum officer may have at hand, that the Border Patrol agent may have heard that person discuss with someone else before they get to the interview with the asylum officer, and consider all of those elements in the assessment of each of these individual cases. So the problem really is the intension and the content of this update.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN So then, there is the issue of, as you said, the intention and the content. But is there also an issue with turning these credible fear hearings, which is the first step in an asylum seeker’s process, over to Customs and Border Patrol agents who are getting training from a lesson plan as opposed to having someone who is trained in legal precedent, which is the current process in which asylum seekers get a hearing with Customs and Immigration Services, basically almost a trained attorney? Does that create problems, or will it create problems do you think?

HELENA OLEA It was definitely create problems. Border Patrol agents are not equipped, are not trained to conduct any form of credible fear interviews, and it is ridiculous to think that they can. It would be the same as believing in a criminal case that a police officer may conduct a hearing to determine whether someone may be deprived of their liberty or not. They are simply not trained to do so. That’s not the purpose of Border Patrol agents and this should not even be a possibility. That is a second concern, which is whether Border Patrol agents will become asylum officers, with what training they will become as asylum officers. And clearly, this lesson plan is insufficient if that is what the administration is planning to do.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN So let’s get some facts, Helena, straight about the asylum process. Is it easy to apply for asylum in the United States?

HELENA OLEA When you arrive to the border, if you’re able to express your fear, you may begin the process, and that would be this first hurdle, the credible fear interview. But it is a very challenging moment in the lives of asylum seekers that I think we fail to understand. They have endured a very difficult journey. Most of them travel for over a month. They have experienced, you know, extreme heat. They are tired. They have been living and sleeping outside for many days and suddenly, they cross the border. They had to build this strength to be able to continue this very difficult journey. They crossed the border and suddenly, they have to be able to give a fair account of what happened to them, to provide details, to come with documents so that they can present that evidence as well, so what they are describing becomes more credible. And so, it’s a very difficult process. They do not have any information training. They do not have an attorney with them. They are by themselves trying to explain as best as they can. In some cases, they have very little education. They may be illiterate. And so, to give a correct account of the facts, to explain what happened, who were the individuals that were targeting them, why they fear for their lives, is very difficult. I don’t think that in the US there is enough understanding of the challenges of the credible fear process.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN So out of this credible fear process, are most people who apply for asylum using credible fear as a criteria, are most people who apply for asylum in the US granted asylum?

HELENA OLEA At the end of the process, no. The levels are very low. Many, a significant number of individuals are able to pass the credible fear interview and I think that one of the goals with this new lesson plan is to diminish that number of individuals who are able to pass a credible fear interview. But later on, when they go through the asylum process and through the asylum hearing, in spite of the fact that many of them may be able to find a pro bono attorney that represents them, many of them are not granted asylum. It’s a very difficult process.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN So I want to play a clip for you of comments that Trump recently made about the asylum process in a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

DONALD TRUMP You have people coming up— you know, they’re all met by the lawyers, the lawyers of— And they come out. They’re all met by the lawyers and they say, say the following phrase, “I am very afraid for my life. I am afraid for my life.” Okay. And then I look at the guy, he looks like he just got out of the ring. He’s the heavyweight champion of the world. He’s afraid for his— [crowd laughs] It’s a big, fat con job, folks. It’s a big, fat con job. [crowd whistles and applauds]

JACQUELINE LUQMAN So Helena, I see you shaking your head and sighing heavily at his comments. Is this how the asylum process really works?

HELENA OLEA No, this is not how the asylum process really works and I just wish that he had the opportunity ever to, you know, spend some time in a shelter close to the border, in one of the dining halls offered by religious organizations, where many of the people, as they are fleeing up north through Mexico stop to have a meal, to take a shower, and to continue their journey. What you will see is vulnerable individuals, many who are traumatized, who are really, very scared. This is not a con job. This is not a journey that they take for pleasure and you can really see their vulnerability. If you have the chance to talk to them, you understand the difficult conditions that they were facing back home, and why they are running away trying desperately to find the safety that they were not finding in their home country. So it’s very— it’s just ridiculous how he presents this element. Of course, in some places in the route, they do receive information and they understand what the institution of asylum is.

We have to remember, for instance, that in the case of Honduras, only 30 percent of the children are able to begin high school. The level of education is very low and it’s very important that they understand when they come to the US what is going to be the process. They do not know whether they’re going to be detained or not. Since the rules are changing all of the time, they don’t know whether they’re going to be separated from their family members or not. There are volunteers who are providing legal information. It is the right of asylum seekers to understand the process that they are going through, but this is not a con job of any sort. And so, it’s really, very painful to observe the president of the US undermining the human suffering of all of those individuals who are taking that very long and very difficult journey to come to the US.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN Finally Helena, who would this potential policy, these potential policies affect the most? I mean, people from predominantly which countries would be affected the most by these particular policies? Are these policies meant to be applied across the board, or are they targeted at particular groups of people?

HELENA OLEA When we observe, when we look really at the rates of granting asylum, and we look at them by country, we observe that not all nations are treated equal. For instance, Venezuelans are granted asylum at higher rates than other Central American nations. That’s not because the conditions in the country may be different— the Central Americans may be experiencing greater hardship or violence— but it’s because cases are treated differently. Of course, the most vulnerable, the individuals with less education, the individuals who are more traumatized, are the ones who are going to be most affected by these new efforts to undermine the institution of asylum in the US.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN Well we are unfortunately out of time. We will continue to watch this issue and see if Trump’s alternate wall he’s trying to build with these rules will be upheld or not. We really thank you, Helena Olea, for coming, talking to us today, and explaining the issues, what these potential rules changes and policies are, and who they affect. We certainly hope that you will come back again and continue to talk to us about this issue.

HELENA OLEA Thank you, Jacqueline. Thank you for caring about asylum. It’s very important.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN Absolutely. And thank you all for watching. I am Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network from Baltimore.

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Jacqueline Luqman is a host and producer for TRNN. With more than 20 years as an activist in Washington, DC, Jacqueline focuses on examining the impact of current events and politics on Black, POC, and other marginalized communities in the US and around the world, providing a specific race and class analysis at the root of these issues. She is Editor-In-Chief and a co-host of the social media program Coffee, Current Events & Politics in Luqman Nation with her husband, and is active in the faith-focused progressive/left activist community.