June 14, 2014
Policymakers Urged to Protect Refugees and Prevent Abuse at U.S. – Mexico Border

Washington, D.C. – As the U.S. government grapples with the humanitarian crisis surrounding the number of children, families and asylum seekers crossing the southern border, Human Rights First today released a comprehensive blueprint detailing how lawmakers and policymakers can tackle challenges related to the increase in requests for asylum and protection along the border. The blueprint, “How to Protect Refugees and Prevent Abuse at the Border,” is based on the organization’s extensive research and visits to key border points, border patrol stations, and immigration detention facilities in Arizona, California, and Texas.

“There is broad bipartisan agreement that protecting those who flee persecution is an important American value,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer, an author of today’s blueprint. “This Blueprint details pragmatic and fiscally prudent solutions that reflect American values. Effectively addressing these challenges should be a top priority for both the administration and Congress.”

“How to Protect Refugees and Prevent Abuse at the Border” examines the increased use of expedited removal over the years and the rise in the number of requests for protection within the expedited removal process. It also outlines the various pressures on the refugee protection system, including the escalation of violence and impunity in countries south of the border. In order to deal with the challenges posed by the increase in asylum seekers requesting U.S. protection at the border, today’s blueprint includes the following key recommendations for policymakers:

• Address the resource imbalance by properly funding the protection screening interviews that are part of expedited removal and reinstatement of removal, as well as immigration court removal hearings, to reduce backlogs and vulnerability to abuse. DHS should request and Congress should appropriate funds to conduct timely in-person credible fear and reasonable fear screenings without diverting staff from affirmative asylum interviews, and address multi-year immigration court backlogs.

• Tackle the deficit of accurate information about the asylum process by expanding legal orientation presentations. DOJ should request and Congress should appropriate funds to expand the cost-efficient Legal Orientation Program to all detention facilities to be presented to asylum seekers and other immigration detainees within a few days of detention, and facilitate access to counsel.

• Strengthen – rather than weaken – protection safeguards. Steps include: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services should end or at least limit telephone interviews and revise flawed language in the new Credible Fear Lesson Plan; CBP should improve conduct of its interviews and implement recommendations of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

• Launch a nationwide initiative with increased capacity to use cost-effective alternatives to detention for border arrivals who are released to other parts of the country and are determined to need appearance support. Congress should support this nationwide initiative. If additional supervision is needed for some families, DHS should build on models of community-based alternatives, such as the pilot projects already in place with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

• Enhance tools for detecting and investigating abuse and criminal activity. DHS should utilize multiple tools for detecting abuse and criminal activity, and refer fraudulent schemes or criminal activity for investigation and prosecution.

• Address triggers of flight. The administration should broaden inter-agency attention to confront impunity and rule of law challenges contributing to flight from Central America and Mexico, support legal assistance for displaced victims in countries of origin and carefully assess any informational campaigns or enforcement proposals for consistency with refugee protection and human rights commitments.

Human Rights First’s research identified a number of ways in which the challenges at the border have led to changes that undermine access to asylum. Many asylum seekers, especially in the busiest areas such as south Texas, are interviewed in chaotic and crowded conditions at U.S. Border Patrol stations, often by telephone, with little privacy, following difficult or traumatic journeys. After transfer to immigration detention, the majority of credible fear interviews are conducted by telephone. Asylum seekers face a range of challenges in seeking release from detention, including bond levels that have risen so steeply in some places that indigent asylum seekers cannot afford to pay them. Many are detained in jail-like conditions for weeks, months or sometimes longer. Throughout the process, there is an overwhelming lack of accurate legal information and lack of counsel.

“U.S. policies can set an example for the rest of the world. The United States has a strong interest in maintaining its global leadership in protecting the persecuted,” Acer noted. “Our nation should strengthen, rather than weaken, its commitment to protecting those who face persecution and other serious human rights abuses.”

Human Rights First has issued a fact sheet outlining the key findings from today’s report. For more information or to speak with Acer, contact Corinne Duffy at or 202-370-3319.

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