In case you haven't noticed, President Trump is not a fan of asylum seekers. His Administration has taken a number of actions to block asylum seekers from coming to the United States and to reduce legal protections for those who are already here. Now, the President has issued a policy memo instructing the Attorney General and the (acting) Secretary of Homeland Security to propose new regulations and re-arrange resources to further discourage migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S. Let's take a look at this most recent move, and how it might impact the asylum process.

As a preliminary matter, the news is not all bad. In Section 2 of the memo, the President re-affirms his commitment to the humanitarian immigration system: "It is the policy of the executive branch to manage our humanitarian immigration programs in a safe, orderly manner that provides access to relief or protection from removal from the United States for aliens who qualify, and that promptly denies benefits to and facilitates the removal of those who do not." While it may not be big news that the Administration will provide "relief or protection... for aliens who qualify," since failing to do so would violate the law, we have to take our good news where we can find it.

In addition, the thrust of the new proposals seem directed towards migrants arriving at the Mexican border. Indeed, the express purpose of the memo is to address the on-going "crisis" in "our immigration and asylum system... as a consequence of the mass migration of aliens across our southern border." It appears that some of the coming changes will affect all asylum seekers--as opposed to only those entering from Mexico--but we won't know for sure until the AG and the DHS Secretary draw up the new regulations.

Finally, it is important to note that none of the changes in the memo have gone into effect--yet. The President has ordered his team to propose regulations within 90 days, and after that, it will likely take additional time to implement those changes (and some may be challenged in court). So for the time being, none of the new rules listed in the memo are operational.

Turning now to the specifics, the memo calls for several significant changes:

First, as I read the memo, it requires all asylum applicants who pass a credible fear interview (an initial evaluation of asylum eligibility) to present their cases before an Immigration Judge. Previously, certain applicants--most notably, minors--could present their cases in the less-confrontational environment of the Asylum Office. Now, it seems, they must present their cases in court.

Second, the memo requires that, "absent exceptional circumstances, all asylum applications adjudicated in immigration court proceedings receive final administrative adjudication, not including administrative appeal, within 180 days of filing." [please assume there is a long pause here, while I laugh and laugh, and eventually compose myself well enough to continue writing]. This ain't gonna happen. No way. No how. It's another iteration of what Judge Paul Wickham Schmidt famously calls "aimless docket reshuffling" or ADS. ADS is the process whereby a new Administration comes in and imposes its particular priorities on the Immigration Court system. The very predictable result of ADS is that cases get re-arranged, judges lose control of their dockets, and most everything gets delayed much longer than if management had just left well-enough alone. The Trump Administration is by no means the first to practice ADS, but they do seem to indulge in it more frequently than prior administrations.

Third, the memo calls for "regulations setting a fee for an asylum application not to exceed the costs of adjudicating the application... and for an initial application for employment authorization for the period an asylum claim is pending." In other words, the government wants to charge asylum seekers to seek asylum (the affirmative asylum system is currently funded by other immigrants when they pay USCIS fees). How much this fee will be, we don't yet know, but if the fee is meant to cover the cost of adjudicating the asylum application, it won't be cheap. Will the fee include the cost of security background checks? Immigration Court proceedings? These processes are expensive, and few asylum seekers can afford to "do business" this way.

The memo does not indicate what happens to people who cannot pay, but we can't just deport them. Indeed, the Immigration and Nationality Act (section 241(b)(3)) and the Convention Against Torture prohibit the U.S. from returning people to countries where they face certain types of harm (this is separate from, but similar to, the asylum law). Such people apply for relief using the same form (I-589) as asylum applicants. Will the government adjudicate these other types of humanitarian applications where the person is unable to pay for asylum? We don't know this either.

Perhaps those who cannot afford to pay will be eligible for a fee waiver. That would help, but fee waivers require significant work to complete, and so, at a minimum, many lawyers would raise their fees (since we are paid for our time). This would make it more difficult for asylum seekers to obtain legal counsel.

As I read the memo, it also seems to be calling for a fee for the initial Employment Authorization Document ("EAD"). Currently, the first EAD for an asylum applicant is free. Renewals cost money (currently $410). EADs are valid for two years, and fee waivers are available, so this particular requirement, while harmful to asylum seekers, is probably not that damaging.

Fourth, the memo calls for regulations to "bar aliens who have entered or attempted to enter the United States unlawfully from receiving employment authorization before any applicable application for relief or protection from removal has been granted, and to ensure immediate revocation of employment authorization for aliens who are denied asylum or become subject to a final order of removal."

Currently, an alien is eligible for an EAD 180 days after she files for asylum (she can submit the application 150 days after she files for asylum). If the new memo is implemented, asylum seekers who "entered or attempted to enter the United States unlawfully"can no longer receive an EAD unless and until their cases are granted. As the memo is written, this provision would probably not apply to an alien who arrived in the U.S. with a visa, but that is not entirely clear. The phrase "entered or attempted to enter the United States unlawfully" is subject to interpretation, and if interpreted broadly, it could block some asylum seekers from obtaining an EAD, even if they entered the U.S. with a visa (for example, if the visa was procured by fraud).

Ironically, if the government succeeds in adjudicating asylum cases within 180 days (and I am skeptical about that), the EAD provision will become less important, since cases will either be granted or denied before the alien is eligible to obtain his EAD. If the case is granted, the alien will be eligible to work immediately, and if it is denied, he presumably (based on this memo) would be ineligible to work while the matter is being appealed. The problem will be for applicants who face long delays, and are unable to work lawfully. How will such people survive the wait?

Finally, the memo calls on the Secretary of Homeland Security to "reprioritize the assignment of immigration officers and any other employees of the Department as the Secretary deems necessary and appropriate to improve the integrity of adjudications of credible and reasonable fear claims, to strengthen the enforcement of the immigration laws, and to ensure compliance with the law by those aliens who have final orders of removal." It's unclear (at least to me) what this means, but it seems like another version of ADS. Perhaps the plan is to shift resources away from adjudicating immigration benefits and towards enforcement. While this would certainly cause even more delay for individuals, families, and businesses who rely on USCIS, any boost to the asylum or enforcement sections of DHS seems unlikely. There is just not a lot of cross-over between the different functions of DHS, and so there are only so many resources that can be shifted around. In other words, I doubt the DHS Secretary can arm Naturalization officers and enlist them to chase after aliens with final orders.

President Trump's memo leaves many unanswered questions, and so we will have to wait for the new regulations to learn the specifics. While some of these changes may be blocked by courts, others will likely go into effect. The result will be a further erosion of our proud tradition as a beacon of hope to those fleeing harm.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: