Denied Asylum, But Terrified To Return Home Immigration lawyers say they're seeing an alarming spike in the number of asylum claims that are being rejected at the earliest stage, known as the credible fear interview.
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Denied Asylum, But Terrified To Return Home

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Denied Asylum, But Terrified To Return Home

Denied Asylum, But Terrified To Return Home

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Thousands of people arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border every month seeking asylum. And those claims have become much harder to win. More and more immigrants are being turned away at the first stage of the asylum process. NPR's Joel Rose has this report. And a warning - this story contains some graphic details of violence.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Lourdes owned a clothing store in Honduras. She says a gang there tried to extort money from her, money she didn't have. That's when her life changed dramatically.

LOURDES: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "Four people came into my store," she says. They beat her, burned her arm with acid and damaged her left hand so severely that she lost four fingers.

LOURDES: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: We spoke to Lourdes on a bad phone line from an immigration detention center in El Paso, Texas. We're not using her full name because she's afraid the gang might find her again. Lourdes fled Honduras earlier this year. She walked across the bridge from Mexico to El Paso and requested asylum. The first step is what's known as a credible fear interview with an asylum officer.

LOURDES: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "I told him that I have the evidence on me," she says. She told him about the scar on her arm and the missing fingers. But the asylum officer rejected her claim.

LOURDES: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "I don't know what happened," Lourdes says. "I don't know how I failed." Her lawyers are surprised by the outcome too.

LINDA RIVAS: That was shocking to have received a negative credible fear result.

ROSE: Linda Rivas directs the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. In the past, Rivas says Lourdes and others fleeing gang or domestic violence would likely have passed this first interview and gone on to present their cases eventually to an immigration judge. But Rivas says those odds have changed.

RIVAS: Even people with pretty severe issues having happened to them in their home country are still coming up with negative credible fear results.

ROSE: Immigrant advocates across the southwest border say they've seen a sudden shift starting last month, when attorney general Jeff Sessions issued a sweeping decision that reshapes who can qualify for asylum. That decision was reinforced last week with concrete guidance to asylum officers directing them to reject more claims, especially those that are based on domestic abuse or gang violence. Eleanor Acer with Human Rights First says credible fear interviews can be a matter of life and death.

ELEANOR ACER: These people will be returned to persecution without even having the chance to have their claims for asylum assessed in U.S. immigration courts.

ROSE: Until recently, 3 out of 4 asylum-seekers were passing the credible fear screening. That's too many, according to the Trump administration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L FRANCIS CISSNA: The statutory standard for credible fear screenings at the border has been set so low that nearly everyone meets it.

ROSE: That's Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees asylum officers. The agency declined our request for an interview. But Cissna testified before Congress in May that many immigrants are exploiting the asylum system. And the backlog of more than 300,000 asylum claims means it's often years before they get to court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CISSNA: Many of those seeking to enter this country illegally, and the smuggling organizations who profit from them, know that a few key words are all it takes to get an alien through this screening process.

ROSE: Immigrant rights advocates argue that the Trump administration's tougher guidelines are rejecting legitimate asylum-seekers too. They're likely to challenge the new guidelines in court. But that won't help people who are trying to make asylum claims now.

LOURDES: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: In El Paso, Lourdes has received a final deportation order. She says she's terrified of going back to Honduras. "I was hoping that the U.S. would give me the opportunity to live with dignity," she said. "I'm not asking for anything else." Joel Rose, NPR News.

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