Attorney General Becerra Leads Multistate Effort to Protect the Rights of Asylum-Seekers

Thursday, December 19, 2019
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SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra today led a coalition of 20 attorneys general in filing a comment letter to protect the rights of asylum-seekers. Under a new interim final rule, the Trump Administration is effectively attempting to ignore asylum claims by sending people, many of whom are fleeing violence and persecution, to third countries that have signed asylum cooperative agreements with the federal government. The rule, which went into immediate effect, will block states from welcoming asylum-seekers who make significant cultural and economic contributions to communities across the country and threatens to tear families apart.

“The Trump Administration is once again adding to its complex web of rules and regulations intended to stifle lawful immigration,” said Attorney General Becerra. “Not only is this latest attack on the asylum system morally reprehensible, but it also raises the specter of family separation and would weaken communities across our country. California thrives because we welcome people who work hard and seek to build a better life and a better America. We will continue to fight for their rights under our constitution.”

Giving asylum-seekers a safe haven from persecution is an essential value of the United States. In contrast, the Trump Administration’s interim final rule harms thousands of already vulnerable individuals by barring them from seeking protection in the United States and forcing them into dangerous circumstances in third countries that are not equipped to handle their claims. Currently, Guatemala is the only country where an asylum cooperative agreement is officially in effect. However, Guatemala has insufficient staff to handle humanitarian claims. There are only 12 officials working on asylum cases in the entire country, and only three of them are tasked with interviewing applicants. The federal government has already announced agreements with Honduras and El Salvador and under the interim final rule this process could apply to those countries and any other country other than Canada that signs an asylum cooperative agreement with the United States. Disturbingly, the rule provides no safeguards against family separation. In fact, it has no requirement that families who arrived together in the United States be removed to the same country, raising the specter of additional trauma that could have significant health consequences for families and children.

Under the rule, asylum-seekers will be subjected to an additional screening to determine if they should be barred from applying for asylum in the United States. During the screening, asylum-seekers must affirmatively state a fear of persecution or torture in another country that has signed an asylum cooperative agreement. However, asylum-seekers will only receive a written notice of this condition and nothing in the new regulation requires the federal government to provide notice in a language the asylum-seeker can actually read and understand. For individuals who are fleeing violence and traveling on foot for thousands of miles, this is an extremely high burden that requires an extensive understanding of U.S. immigration laws and a working knowledge of the conditions of countries they may have never even visited. With limited time to prepare a response and potentially without access to legal counsel, the additional screening risks simply being an empty, discriminatory formality that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In the comment letter, the coalition also argues that the rule is arbitrary and capricious and is contrary to the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Attorney General Becerra remains committed to safeguarding the rights of people in California and across the country. In October, the Attorney General co-led a coalition against a Trump Administration rule attempting to illegally limit access to the asylum process. Earlier this month, the California Department of Justice led a multistate amicus brief in opposition to an executive order that threatens to upend the refugee resettlement process in the United States. In September, Attorney General Becerra helped secure a preliminary injunction halting the Trump Administration’s vast expansion of the use of expedited removal, which would have allowed for certain individuals to be deported without the due process protections afforded in normal removal proceedings. The Attorney General also filed a lawsuit in opposition to a rule circumventing protections for children under the Flores Settlement Agreement, which was permanently blocked by a federal court in September.

In submitting the comment letter, Attorney General Becerra is joined by the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

A copy of the comment letter is available here.

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