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Asylum officers union: Proposed rule would force officers to go against asylum law

A union representing U.S. asylum officers says enforcing a proposed asylum rule would require them to go against long-established immigration and and protection laws.

The proposed rule would presumptively bar asylum seekers from asking for protection at the U.S.-Mexico border if they haven’t already in a country they passed through. The Department of Homeland Security posted the proposal to the Federal Register in February and opened a 30-day public comment period that closed this week.

As first reported by the Los Angeles Times, lawyers representing the American Federation of Government Employees' National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council 119, a union that represents 14,000 USCIS officers, including some 1000 asylum officers.

"Council 119’s members are steadfast in their commitment to serving our country by continuing its proud tradition as a refuge for the persecuted while ensuring the safety and security of Americans," the complaint reads. "The Proposed Rule betrays this tradition and would force Council 119’s members to take actions that would violate their oath to faithfully discharge their duty to carry out the immigration laws adopted by Congress."

U.S. law says asylum seekers have the right to ask for protection anywhere along the border, and can also do so once they're already in the U.S.. Asylum officers are tasked with conducting processes like credible fear screenings, to determine whether people are eligible for asylum protection. 

Michael Knowles is a spokesperson for Council 119 and the president of its D.C.-area chapter, Local 1924.

"One of the fundamental laws that we are to uphold is the Refugee Act 1980, the Immigration and Naturalization Act, and the International Convention on Protection of Refugees," he said. "The fundamental tenant there is that migrants, asylum seekers have the right to seek asylum in a country and not be subjected to the risk of being returned to where they're in danger. That includes the right to have their cases fully heard, fairly heard, pending a decision."

Knowles said enforcing the new rule would require asylum officers like him to go against those laws. He said the new rule would also add more labor to an already-overburdened workforce at USCIS, by requiring officers to assess whether asylum seekers have applied for protection elsewhere, often in countries ill-equipped to offer it.  

"In fact, many of those countries also produce refugees and subject migrants to threats of violence or persecution, so our members are very concerned that this rule would prevent them from doing their primary job, which is to identify and protect refugees, but it would also require us to subject asylum seekers to an impossible standard that might place them and their families at risk," he said. "This does not bode well for asylum seekers, and it does not bode well for asylum officers who are charged with protecting those asylum seekers."

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.