The Muslim travel ban, new restrictions on asylum, no-holds-barred deportations, children separated from their parents at the border: the last nearly 20 months have been defined by a series of aggressive measures to expel immigrants already in the US and bar others from coming. While these policies originate in Washington, they don't take full form with the stroke of a pen. To carry them out requires the labor of tens of thousands of agents and officers and attorneys who constitute the federal immigration system.
It’s hard to read the news and not wonder who actually does these jobs. When the rules change, where do you draw the line between your moral values and your livelihood? At what point does it become intolerable?
Many government employees who work for US Citizenship and Immigration Services are asking themselves the same questions. “We are the ones who opened the doors,” a former USCIS officer told me. “Under Trump, it was like the job became to try to close the door.” The agency is the part of the Department of Homeland Security that grants visas and adjudicates asylum and refugee cases. But under the Trump administration, USCIS has increasingly been deployed to keep immigrants out. In February, under the leadership of USCIS director Lee Francis Cissna, the agency changed its mission statement, removing the line “USCIS secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” and inserting a line about “protecting Americans” and “securing the homeland.”
“I am very worried about what is happening. I wonder often if I will be able to keep this job.”
In recent weeks, I’ve talked with current and former USCIS staff about what it’s been like to work on the front lines of the legal immigration system in a climate of intense anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric.
Some of the workers I’ve spoken with have spent years traveling to sites around the world to interview refugees. Others visit detention centers to interview men and women and children who have fled violence or peril in their homes. Still others process applicants who hope to join their families or to take a job in the US. After Trump entered the White House, asylum officers told me that their supervisors began to send asylum cases back with instructions to reconsider their decisions, cases they were sure they’d adjudicated correctly. “I could not bring myself to reverse it,” one former asylum officer said. Refugee officers, meanwhile, saw their roles shrink after Trump’s travel ban went into effect in January 2017. One told me she thought regularly about a Syrian refugee whose case she had approved but who was not allowed to come to the US. “I wonder now if she’s still alive,” the officer said. Others related that inside their field offices, a new level of suspicion has taken hold, a “guilty until proven innocent” disposition toward asylum seekers and immigrants. Still, a number of workers told me, they are staying the course, to provide immigrants and refugees a fair chance to make their case, to make their lives in the US.
What follows is one of these interviews, with a USCIS asylum officer who agreed to speak to me on the condition of anonymity. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Thanks for agreeing to talk with me. I know it may not have been an obvious decision, to talk with a journalist.
The fact that I’m talking to you means something. The fact that I’ve decided to speak with the press, to you, about my job, means something about my feelings about what’s happening in this job.
I am very worried about what is happening. I wonder often if I will be able to keep this job.
Before we go there, can you tell me what your job is? What do you actually do as an asylum officer at USCIS?
I interview people who are making a claim that they can’t safely live in the country they come from. Claims about political violence, domestic violence including child abuse, gang violence, religious violence, and so on. I meet with people in our office, people who are already here, and are making affirmative claims for asylum. And there are credible-fear interviews, with people who arrive without permission. I do calls on the phone from people who are detained, and I often go to immigration detention centers and meet with people face-to-face. This includes going to family detention centers, where I conduct credible-fear interviews for moms and kids.
Describe one of these interviews. What are you trying to figure out, what are you asking the people you’re meeting with? Help me get a sense of what the conversation is like.
Credible-fear interviews last at least an hour. Every officer has a different style, a different way of preparing. Many people have their questions prewritten, so they can make sure that they get through the eligibility requirements. Others don’t do that, and instead it’s a more open conversation. What everyone tries to do is ask about past harm, about the reason that person believes that they are being harmed, and about potential future harm. We’ll ask about whether their government can offer them protection and whether they can relocate internally in the country, and we’ll try to figure out if there are any security concerns at all that might bar someone from asylum or raise more questions.
“I want to be able to provide a touch of humanity. I want to be human.”
You said you go to family detention centers. These are the facilities where primarily children and mothers are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There are three of them now, and the Trump administration hopes to open more. Tell me about what your work looks like, interviewing women inside these facilities.
I think that oftentimes for the women who are detained at those facilities, it will be the first moment that someone will be kind to them. The very first time in the whole process. They are not treated well at the border, by other agents in other agencies, and when they are transferred from different facilities, they sometimes tell us how they were treated, by guards, by ICE or Border Patrol officers.
When you’re in the detention facilities, people will tell me that an officer yelled at them, didn’t give them a blanket, that an officer told them that the US doesn’t want them here. A question I often ask is, “How have you been treated in the detention facilities?” and most people say, “Fine,” maybe because they don’t want me think that they are making a complaint against me, they don’t want me to hold that against them. But other people will tell me what has happened to them. I have heard things that are serious. I don’t want to talk about specifics. Sometimes people will file complaints, usually it’s against Border Patrol, at least in the context I am hearing it.
Is that a standard question? “How have you been treated?” Do you all of your colleagues ask that question?
No, but I think we should ask that question, because I think we should know how people are being treated by our government. It just seems like we should know. And if something is not happening in the facility, like they’re not getting the medicine they need, then we can expedite that and someone higher up in USCIS might be able to communicate that to ICE.
I want to be able to provide a touch of humanity. I want to be human. The process, it is not very human. And I want to be able to give these women and men a fair opportunity to have their story heard. Not all officers are the same and not all officers are going to give the people they interview a fair chance to tell their story.
I think that the officers go through trauma. You sit day after day listening to horrendous acts of violence, and it takes a toll on you. And when you’re a traumatized individual, it’s a very hard thing to be a decent person to other human beings. And in this case, it’s one traumatized individual talking to another person about their trauma.
Is there anything built into your job, any system of support, to help people to deal with processing this? I think it’s called “vicarious trauma.”
Not a lot of people I work with want to admit that they feel how they feel. The agency has come up with some programs that they would like for us to utilize, but it’s hard to utilize the programs because there’s all this work to get done that we want to get done well and quickly. It’s hard to get that time. Our interviews can last two hours, and we do multiple interviews each day. Finding time to have lunch and go to the restroom can be difficult. Trying to deal with your trauma from listening, it’s hard to make any time.
You worked in this job before Trump became president, and you’re still there now. For you and your colleagues working inside the immigration system, what have been the most dramatic shifts between before and after the election?
Whether or not you approve of the president, the fact is that USCIS has now been called out by top officials, and called out all the time, for letting in terrorists and letting in MS-13. What we hear is that we let in terrible people. And in general, things at work are stricter—people look two, three, four times more at a kid case, for example, an unaccompanied minor case, a case coming in from Central America. It gets scrutinized way more than we did before. We already had a million security checks we had to do. We were screening people rigorously before. And now there are additional security checks on these folks. If the president and Jeff Sessions don’t like you, if you’re from a country they don’t like, it’s harder and your case gets more scrutiny.
People in the office are demoralized. I think the job was hard to begin with. There were already very high expectations, very rigorous screenings. Now, there is a fear among upper-level officers that the program could get cut altogether, so everyone is trying very hard to not make any mistakes so that the program doesn’t get cut. My worry is that this will lead to people who should get asylum not getting asylum.
What do you mean, “get cut”? Is there now a fear that if something happens where someone is let in who then does something—say, commits an act of violence—that the entire asylum system will be shut down?
Yes, that’s what I worry about. It’s not a crazy worry. I mean the asylum program, and I mean the refugee program, too. I don’t know if this could happen entirely, because we do have obligations under international law. I don’t know what could happen. We are living in a time when we don’t know what could happen. The point I’m making is that we have lots of eyes on us. It makes people scared. They don’t want to lose their jobs, and you don’t want to be the person that ended asylum.
“All that they wanted from me was to know where their kids were. They would ask me, ‘Where are my children?’”
Has there been a shift in who gets approved? Have there been people screened out at the credible-fear stage who you feel strongly should be approved, who should pass a credible-fear interview?
At the border, of course. I don’t even get to see them. That is for sure. We don’t get to see them at all. People are being turned back at the border, people making asylum claims. It makes my stomach hurt to say that. There are people coming here with serious claims, and they are not even allowed to make claims. It makes me feel complicit.
With certain cases, like unaccompanied minors, after Trump was elected, it became much harder for us. The cases were scrutinized more. The upper management at the headquarters of asylum, they started requiring more review of those cases, and so certain types of cases would get additional review at an office somewhere else. Some kids’ cases get headquarter review. There was a big emphasis on what should be considered a gang indicator. Even cases where there was nothing about a gang, you have to interview about potential gang affiliation, about MS-13 affiliation.
It’s becoming more normal to have my cases, my grants, not signed off on by my boss. My grants are coming back to me more. Sometimes that’s not fair. I know I made the right decision.
What’s an example of this kind of excessive scrutiny?
A kid’s haircut. Things come up about the haircut a person has. That has been looked at. A certain haircut makes them look twice. Or if they have a certain hat. Stupid things that they say could be a gang indicator, when it might just be someone’s clothes. Now that doesn’t necessarily preclude someone entirely, but it means you have to ask more questions, it means there’s more scrutiny.
So you said earlier that you wonder often if you will be able to keep this job. What did you mean?
I struggle every single day with how to determine whether I’m causing more harm than good. I struggle with that every day. I don’t know how to answer that question, but that’s how I feel.
Can you tell me the story that goes through your head, about how you may be doing more harm than good? What’s the version of this where that’s the case, where you’re doing more harm?
I just feel like [long silence]—
OK, I’m going to tell you, in a very specific example: when the kids got separated from their parents. I am going to tell you about that. I was interviewing moms in detention who were separated from their children. Officials took their children away from them. All that they wanted from me was to know where their kids were. They would ask me, “Where are my children?”
But I was told not to tell them where their kids were. I was told not to tell them. When I say I’m complicit, this is what I mean.
All I wanted to do was give them information about where their children were. Think about this: I am sitting with a woman who has no idea what’s happening, who has been separated from her children. All she wanted was her kid. And all that I was allowed to share was a 1-800 number that ICE gave us, a 1-800 number for them to call. The 1-800 number was from some office, the document came from ICE, but I heard that it didn’t always work.
This hateful, harmful agenda that the president and Sessions have created—being inside of that, it makes me feel complicit.
I’ve talked with other USCIS staff who say they were not given that same instruction, to withhold that information, and as a result, they said they did tell parents they met with where their children had been taken. How do you account for that difference?
This was a major policy—taking children from parents—and there was no clear way of dealing with it in the government. I was told one thing, and whoever that was was told something else.
I would imagine that some of these interviews with mothers stick with you.
You can’t forget them. The people I meet are recounting some of the most intimate moments in their life, the most traumatic moments in their life, to a complete stranger, and that person is asking so many questions. Sometimes you see people reliving what they went though. I’m forcing them to do that. You see them reliving it in their face, in their body. Sometimes people will stand up, unprompted, and act out what happened. I would never ask them to do that. But emotion takes over and they are back in that place.
I remember faces. I remember women who were dead in the eyes. Their eyes are dead because of what they have been through. You know that that is not where they should be in that moment. In no way is this where these women should be, in detention. And of course, they cannot trust me because they’ve been lied to by the government to get the kids away from them. And I’m trying to do an interview.
What do you mean they’ve been lied to?
I don’t know how ICE agents lie. I know these women were very confused. They have been told things that are not true. And I’m just another person they expect to be like that. Their ability to get through that interview with me, it’s crazy. For them to get through these interviews must be so hard.
In the cases I’ve seen, these women have been assigned attorneys pro bono from great nonprofits, and all the attorneys hated me. To them, I represent what is wrong, and that makes sense, because I would be so angry at the officer sitting across from me if I were them. But I am not trying to be a monster. I am trying to do my job and give them a chance. The attorneys after a while would start to see that I’m being human; you could see the shift as I talked to these women. But at the end of the day, you represent a system that is not being fair, not providing any fairness to these individuals, and you look these women in their eyes, and you know all of it is wrong, and then, right there, again it makes me feel like I’m complicit. That I should not be there, that I should be fighting this.
“I never thought they would take kids away from their parents. What else could they do?”
I want to ask you about Matter of A-B-. That’s the decision that Jeff Sessions issued in June that reversed existing legal precedent by vastly limiting access to asylum for people fleeing domestic violence and gang violence. Sessions called it “private violence” and told immigration judges and immigration officers that the US is not obligated to protect people from that sort of violence. What was your reaction?
When Matter A-B- came down, my immediate reaction was that I was going to quit. I felt that there was no way that I could deny or give someone a negative decision for something that two days ago would have been just fine. These are people who need to be protected. What Sessions wanted to do with the matter of A-B- was just that: to basically end asylum for people who are fleeing these kinds of violence.
Then I read the case. And I saw that, yes, it takes away a big case that set the standard, but that it still left a little bit of wiggle room and I am thankful for that room.
As a low-level officer, the only guidance I had was what came out in a public memo, and our job is to follow the law. And as I read the law, A-B- does not close the door entirely on domestic violence cases. We have to keep working hard to make sure people get a chance. But A-B- makes us all very wary. It makes people scared.
You thought about quitting after Matter of A-B- came down. But you didn’t. What would be your breaking point? When would you quit?
I think about it all the time. I don’t know yet where the line is.
I think sometimes, for a minute, that things will be OK, and then things get worse. There was Sessions telling judges to oppose continuances for all reasons, and there was the separation of kids from their families. There was Matter of A-B-. For me, there is still space to be fair, and to provide opportunities for people. But at this point, I can’t yet fathom what will happen next. I don’t want to, but I’m sure it will come. I never thought they would take kids away from their parents. What else could they do? They did that, so they could do anything.
Seth Freed Wessler is a reporter in New York and a fellow with The Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. @sethfw