In an unexpected--but perhaps not surprising--move, the Asylum Division has canceled its Quarterly Engagement Meeting, which had been scheduled for November 14, 2019. This is the meeting where headquarters staff from the Asylum Division give updates and answer questions from stakeholders, such as non-profit organizations and lawyers like me.

Over the years, I've attended a number of these Engagement Meetings. They were helpful for several reasons. Most obviously, Asylum Division leaders answered written questions, which had to be submitted in advance, and also allowed us to ask questions and raise issues at the meetings themselves. The meetings provided an opportunity for us to meet Asylum Division leaders and for them to meet us. This type of human-to-human interaction is beneficial to both sides. We were able to see "the bureaucracy" and better understand their concerns, and they could directly hear from their constituents. As I see it, this type of communication and transparency is appropriate in any functioning democracy.

But now things have changed. And while it is disappointing that the Engagement Meeting has been canceled, it is not really surprising. The Trump Administration has been closing avenues of communication between government agencies and various stakeholders for some time. For example, EOIR--the Executive Office for Immigration Review--the office that oversees that nation's Immigration Courts, has dramatically reduced the ability of its employees to communicate with people outside the agency. In my interview with the former Chief Immigration Judge, she notes that, "This change was touted as a way to streamline the Agency’s messaging system, but cutting off... communication is detrimental, and I think EOIR has been hampered by our inability to talk at different levels to stakeholders." EOIR is also refusing to release data about its operations--data that was routinely made public in the past, and which helped us better understand how the system was operating. In addition, EOIR, DHS, and the Asylum Division have all been blocking their employees from speaking publicly, even to law students and at professional conferences. All this is harmful to students and professionals, who benefit from contact with public servants, but it is detrimental to the agencies as well, since they cannot hear directly from the people they serve or explain themselves to the advocacy community. Worse, their ability to recruit talented employees is hampered if they cannot communicate directly with people outside the government.

So as you can see, the Asylum Division's decision to cancel the Engagement Meeting fits a wider pattern, but there may be other reasons behind the cancellation as well. The most obvious is a recent change in leadership. The long-time Director of the Asylum Division, John Lafferty, who normally chaired the Engagement Meetings, was forced out a few months ago. I met Mr. Lafferty several times, and I had (and still have) a high opinion of him: He tried to follow the law in the face of the Trump Administration's assault on due process. Some lawyers I know felt he bent too far towards accommodating the Administration's policies, but I saw him walking a difficult line and doing his duty to his superiors and to the law. He managed to keep the Asylum Division operating (more or less) despite the Administration's machinations against it. According to news reports, Mr. Lafferty's removal has further damaged morale at his agency--

The reassignment of John Lafferty... has caused consternation and fear among asylum officers and other USCIS officials, who worry that the administration is dead set on pushing forward with policies that may not always be legal or adequately researched.... "This is shocking and distressing news for the civil servants in the Asylum Division,” said [an unnamed] USCIS official. “A very sad day where an incredibly sophisticated, highly dedicated, and ethical leader is being removed from an important position in the agency."

The new Director of the Asylum Division is Andrew Davidson, the former deputy associate director for USCIS’s Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate, the department that leads the agency's "efforts to combat fraud, detect national security and public safety threats, and maximize law enforcement and Intelligence Community partnerships." It seems likely that the choice of Mr. Davidson reflects the Trump Administration's view that asylum claims are largely fraudulent, and so we will have to see where the Asylum Division goes under his leadership.

As the new Director, Mr. Davidson is in a position to continue or cancel the practice of holding Quarterly Engagement Meetings. The fact that the November 14th meeting--which would have been the first of his tenure--has been canceled, does not bode well. But perhaps since he is new to his role, he was not yet ready to engage with stakeholders, and meetings will resume once he settles in. Perhaps.

I myself was looking forward to the Engagement Meeting because I was hoping to hear answers to questions I submitted about how each Asylum Office was addressing its backlog. Whether USCIS will ever provide answers to these questions, I do not know. I reached out to them after I learned that the meeting was canceled, but I have not yet received a response.

I certainly hope the Asylum Division will resume the practice of holding public meetings. Whatever your feelings about asylum seekers and the asylum system, when government agencies close off avenues of communication and hide behind bureaucracy, it is bad for our democracy. It also begs the question: If the Asylum Division is so intent on cutting communication with us, what is it that they are trying to hide?

Originally posted on the Asylumist: