CBP Cannot Act as Both Captor and Confidant | The Center for Victims of Torture

CBP Cannot Act as Both Captor and Confidant

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Andrea Cárcamo-Cavazos is CVT senior policy counsel

When I practiced immigration law, it could take several visits for my clients to share deeply personal information which often had a significant impact on their cases, such as if they had been raped in their home countries or if they were LGBT. For survivors of torture and trauma, establishing trust—even with someone offering help, and even when lives are on the line—can be extremely difficult. My clients knew I was there to help, but their trauma made opening up to me excruciating. Imagine how painful it would be, then, to try to share these intimate details with an armed, uniformed, police-like officer who may have apprehended them at the border. This is precisely the scenario the Trump Administration wants to implement.

According to recent reports, the administration is seeking to turn Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents into asylum officers, a move that could make it nearly impossible for deeply-traumatized torture survivors to successfully pass the first stage needed to then file a claim for asylum. Whereas the U.S. Border Patrol is “. . . the mobile, uniformed law enforcement arm of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection within the Department of Homeland Security Responsible for securing U.S. borders between ports of entry,” asylum officers are trained under U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This branch of the Department of Homeland Security is designed to process and welcome immigrants into the country through the several forms of relief. In fact, USCIS’ homepage highlights the connection between USCIS and Ellis Island. Sadly, under the changes directed by the Trump White House, USCIS’ character is slowly changing from one of welcome to one of enforcement.

It is difficult for a victim of torture or severe trauma to reveal personal information about persecution during the credible fear interview, which is the first step toward asylum and has long been conducted by an asylum officer. The credible fear interview is used to determine whether individuals who have expressed fear of returning to their home country at the border could potentially win their claim in Immigration Court based on the facts presented during this interview. The process was designed to be non-adversarial so as to encourage the development of trust between the asylum officers and survivors. At these interviews, asylum seekers are expected to share deeply personal experiences, including whether they have been raped or abused. This information is likely to be degrading and re-traumatizing. Often, their ability to pass this interview depends on their willingness to share these facts.

Alarmingly, the administration plans to use CBP officers as asylum officers, as reflected in the memorandum published by the White House on May 1, 2019, and also in its request for $23 million in additional funding presented to Congress just three days after the memorandum’s release – which is intended to “begin implementing the Border Patrol credible fear screening program.” While the White House is promoting this program as a solution to the humanitarian crisis at the border, its effect will be devastating to asylum seekers and victims of severe trauma. It will hinder survivors’ ability to obtain accurate assessments during credible fear interviews, which, for many, could mean they will be returned to persecution, in some cases likely in violation of the Convention against Torture.

As reported in the Washington Examiner, “agents would conduct the interviews shortly after apprehending people who have illegally crossed from Mexico to the U.S.” As such, this new tactic means that a significant number of survivors of torture and severe trauma will be deported to persecution, and even death, because they were expected to confide in their captors (CBP officers) at the U.S. border. My clinical colleagues at the Center for Victims of Torture have expressed grave concerns about this. They explain that it is often extremely difficult for a survivor of torture or trauma to share traumatic experiences, even in a setting that is non-adversarial, such as an interview with an asylum officer. Since a CBP officer’s job is inherently adversarial (to capture and detain individuals), it is extremely unlikely a survivor will feel safe and trust the officer. CBP officers are uniformed and often armed, and many survivors have suffered persecution by authorities in their home countries. One of my former clients was raped by her country’s national police because her father refused to follow their orders, which entailed doing something illegal. Many others were harassed, or observed the cooperation between the national police and gang members.

The Center for Victims of Torture, along with many other organizations, understands that there is a refugee and humanitarian crisis at the border and some changes have to be made. However, the correct response to a humanitarian crisis must be of a humanitarian nature. We continue to advocate for the more effective, fiscally responsible, and humane methods of alternatives to detention. Instead of using tax payers’ money to double CBP officers’ tasks as asylum seekers and expand detention space, the Department of Homeland Security should use funds to hire more asylum officers and divest money away from detention and towards alternatives to detention. Data gathered by our partners demonstrate that  alternatives to detention programs produce a 99.3 percent immigration court attendance rate. More importantly to tax payers, alternatives  to detention cost $38 per day per family unit, while detention costs $320 per day per family unit—around 10 times more.   

This administration needs to stop spreading false and intentionally misleading messages about asylum seekers who have taken the serious and often dangerous step to flee their homes. The dangers in the Northern Triangle countries that force people to flee are very real. If the administration seeks to decrease the refugee flows arriving at our southern border, it must address the root causes comprehensively.   



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