RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This week, the acting chief of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office has faced criticism for his reinterpretation of "The New Colossus," the poem emblazoned below the Statue of Liberty. On this program, Ken Cuccinelli said the phrase welcoming the tired and poor to America should be understood to include only those who, quote, "can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge."
For Charles Tjersland, an asylum officer working in Cuccinelli's agency, evaluating who should be allowed to stay in the U.S. is more complicated.
CHARLES TJERSLAND: It's a passion. It's the love of my life. Everyone talks about asylum and our refugee program with pride or as a part of the moral fabric of this nation, right? The lady in the harbor up there in New York, the mother of exiles - we're going to fight to make sure that we are actually living up to the ideals that this country was actually founded on.
MARTIN: Tjersland is a union steward for AFG local 1924 and has been with the Citizenship and Immigration Service for more than a quarter century. With the support of his union, he wrote a July op-ed in The Washington Post objecting to the Trump administration's migrant protection protocols. The policy compels more migrants to wait in Mexico until a judge rules on their asylum claim. And Tjersland says they often wait in dangerous conditions.
He talked with Steve Inskeep before the controversy over Ken Cuccinelli's remarks, and he said that his asylum interviews have changed from a way to identify refugees into a way to reject them.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Are you a kind of detective?
TJERSLAND: Yeah, yeah, definitely. That's what makes this work very challenging but fascinating. We are the trained asylum officers who do nonadversarial interviews. We are looking at country information. We're looking at their testimony. We're looking at it. We're testing it for inconsistency, consistency, detail.
INSKEEP: You said nonadversarial interview, which means they're trying to prove they have a right to stay here, and you're not a prosecutor going against them.
INSKEEP: You're just trying to find out if...
INSKEEP: ...What the facts are.
TJERSLAND: Exactly. Exactly. We're trying to put them at ease in that respect. But at the same time, we're going to confront folks when the things they tell us don't add up or are not consistent.
INSKEEP: Has the Trump administration changed the standard of proof?
TJERSLAND: Yeah. I mean, you know, the - for instance, when we do the screenings of individuals who are brought in for the migrant protection protocols, they have changed the standard. They've brought the standard up to the highest standard possible - clear probability of harm in - say, in Mexico.
INSKEEP: Do the standards mean that you as an asylum officer are failing to protect people that you are convinced have a legal claim to be - not an illegal claim but a legal claim - to be in the United States?
TJERSLAND: Right. That's exactly how my asylum officer colleagues and myself feel, I think - is that we're being used as a deterrent, Steve, for the first time. In 26 years, I've never felt that our asylum program was in any way ever used as a deterrent.
INSKEEP: Spell it out for me. How are you being used as a deterrent because you send people to wait in Mexico?
TJERSLAND: Well, because if you think about it, the people are thinking, why come all the way, why risk our lives and our family's lives - we're desperate to get out of these conditions that are driving us from our homes. Why go all the way to the trouble of coming to the U.S. border when we're literally being sent right back into a cauldron on the other side? And I mean, cauldron - I don't mean to be exaggerating. But the border, in particular, of Mexico is perhaps one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous.
INSKEEP: Do you get messages from your superiors, explicit or implicit, to basically send everyone to Mexico?
TJERSLAND: It's implicit. It's not - there's no explicit order saying that. But by rigging the standards as has been done, that's exactly how it comes across.
INSKEEP: Is there a story of someone you sent back to Mexico that you had trouble getting out of your head when you went home that night?
TJERSLAND: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, not knowing where, you know, where, you know, a man or a woman was going to be keeping their children safe, literally - where are they going to be?
INSKEEP: Would she ask you, what am I supposed to do when I get to Mexico?
TJERSLAND: Well, you know, this is my - these are the questions we're supposed to ask. We're supposed to ask, so if you were to go back today, where would you be going? Where are you going to go? And they're really - they are at their wit's end. They're saying, the shelter is full. We've been told we can't go back there.
INSKEEP: Do you have colleagues who've quit?
TJERSLAND: We've had colleagues that have quit. We're driving away some of the brightest minds, most motivated hearts. Many still remain. Don't get me wrong. But it's really a shame.
INSKEEP: You thought about retiring?
TJERSLAND: You know, I haven't thought about it in the sense of running away or walking away from this, no. But I've thought about it 'cause I'm getting to that age, but not because of what's going on, no. I'm not going to turn my back on...
INSKEEP: Turn your back on...
TJERSLAND: ...The lady in the harbor, the one that raises the golden lamp, the one that Emma Lazarus referred to in "The New Colossus."
INSKEEP: Give me your tired, your poor...
TJERSLAND: That's right - yearning to breathe free in safety and security in the United States - and the mother of exiles, as she refers to her. So no, I haven't thought about it in that respect, no.
INSKEEP: Charles Tjersland, thanks very much.
TJERSLAND: Thank you very much, Steve. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.