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Rights advocates say proposed DHS rule could shut out asylum seekers with valid claims

A new rule proposed by the Department of Homeland Security would have asylum officers do more advanced screening while conducting initial interviews for asylum seekers at the border.

Asylum officers are already tasked with doing what’s called a credible or reasonable fear interview for asylum seekers who arrive at certain parts of the border — like between ports of entry.

It’s an initial screening that’s intended to determine whether a person may qualify for protection in the U.S. But under the new proposal, those interviews would have asylum officers conduct additional screenings and streamline deportation orders or asylum bars, if they determine an asylum seeker is a national security threat or has committed certain crimes.

The Biden administration has said the proposal would impact only a small percentage of asylum seekers at the border and enhance operational flexibility at DHS. 

But Chelsea Sachau, managing attorney of the border action team for the legal aid group Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, says it's a process that already exists elsewhere in the asylum system.

"There are different statutory bars, including if somebody has been accused of a particularly serious crime, or if they've been accused of committing a non-serious crime outside of the United States, or if they provided, for instance, material support for a terrorist group, things like that," she said. "But think about those words, what is a particularly serious crime? What is material support?" 

She says these are often that require knowledge and preparation on the part of asylum seekers, immigration lawyers and judges.

"And so it’s always in front of an immigration judge because it’s highly, highly fact-specific, it’s also very much dependent of the country of origin, where they’re coming from," she said. "There's a lot of case law, decades of case law, helping immigration judges decide these matters," she said. 

Sachau says asking asylum officers to make those complex determinations in an already-packed fear screening could lead to asylum seekers with valid claims getting rejected and ordered deported.

Members of the public have until June 12th to provide comment for the proposed rule. 

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