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Asylum officers' union says some changes proposed in Senate bill should not move forward

Lawmakers in Washington are getting ready to vote on a piece of legislation that would drastically change the way migrants and asylum seekers are processed at the border. 

Seeking asylum along the border is a right under U.S. and international law. In many cases, asylum officers with Citizenship and Immigration Services conduct screenings to determine whether those protection claims can progress to immigration court.

Michael Knowles is a spokesperson for the American Federation of Government Employees’ National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council 119, the national union that represents asylum officers and other USCIS employees. He says many people don’t realize just how small their workforce actually is. 

“So when you hear about enormous backlogs and it taking years to have somebody have their claims processed and the system overwhelmed, I think the awareness that there are only 800 of us puts things in stark terms,” he said. 

The new bill would provide funding for about 4,000 additional asylum officers and other USCIS support staff — a change Knowles says the union has long been requesting. But it also includes a provision to allow border officers to turn migrants away when arrivals get too high, and another that would raise the threshold asylum seekers must meet in initial screenings. 

Knowles says that would undermine international refugee law, and it could make it harder for asylum officers to do their jobs.

“You’re essentially having the screening officers spending an enormous amount of time eliciting testimony, testing credibility at a much higher standard, which actually makes the process more time consuming,” he said.

Knowles says that becomes even more complicated if asylum seekers don't have a lawyer present to help them work through the screening and their immigration case. 

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