USCIS Union: Asylum Officers Protest DHS Policies That Place Asylum Seekers in Harm’s Way

Categories: The Insider

AFGE National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council 119 Special Representative Michael Knowles told members of Congress that the Trump administration’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy and other practices undermine the functioning of the U.S. asylum system by requiring asylum officers to make decisions that could result in human rights abuses.

Under the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, asylum seekers are returned to Mexico while waiting for their court hearings. But the towns and cities at the southern border are among the most dangerous in the country. Carjacking, sexual assaults, and gang gun battles are common. It has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the country. The State Department warns everyone not to travel to the region. The ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy forces asylum officers to place asylum seekers in harm’s way by sending them to the dangers they face in the countries from which they are fleeing, violating U.S. laws and international treaties.

"These policies are blatantly illegal, they are immoral, and indeed are the basis for some egregious human rights violations by our own country," Knowles testified before the House Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation and Operations on Nov. 19. "I don't know a single asylum officer in the country, and I speak to them all over the country, who believes it is a good policy.”

AFGE Council 119 represents more than 13,500 USCIS employees worldwide.

Aid workers who testified at the same hearing confirmed the dangers these asylum seekers have faced when forced to wait for their court hearings in Mexico. They were robbed, sexually assaulted, or even kidnapped from the shelter that’s supposed to protect them.

“Asylum seekers have tough jobs. We make decisions that have life or death consequences. Most of us consider the work a calling; we make significant personal sacrifices to carry out the nation’s founding mission – to serve as a beacon to the persecuted across the globe. Frankly, the job takes its toll even in the best of times. But we are now far from the best of times,” said Knowles, who is also president of AFGE Local 1924 representing 2,500 USCIS employees in the National Capital Region.

Blowing the whistle

Knowles said the union has taken and continues to take stands against policies that it believes to be illegal.

“We actively support our members who exercise their lawful rights to report abusive policies, programs, and practices to Congress and other agencies as well as their first amendment rights,” he testified.

That’s why the local and the council have filed amicus briefs in four major court cases challenging the Trump administration’s policies. And when USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli made hostile statements and intimidated union officers and employees regarding the briefs, the council filed a national grievance against Cuccinelli for hindering employees from exercising their first amendment rights through their union.

One asylum officer resigned rather than participate in the program that he knew was illegal and immoral. Prior to his resignation, San Francisco Asylum Officer Doug Stephens interviewed asylum seekers, including a father and son from Honduras who had witnessed other migrants being murdered and tortured by the Mexican cartels. They fled the cartel and were stopped by the police, who took their money and cellphones. Because of the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, Stephens had to send them back to Mexico where they might be assaulted or killed.

A trained lawyer, Stephens identified seven legal problems with the policy. He requested to be removed from the interviewing duty, but his request was denied. USCIS management told him he would be disciplined if he refused to carry out the policy.

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