People seeking protection in the U.S. from violence at home bring their cases to the immigration court located in the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building at Ft. Snelling. Currently closed, the court has a backlog of over 13,000 immigration cases. Credit: David Bowman

A campaign worker was setting up voting booths in Honduras when the opposing party firebombed his house. The explosion destroyed his motorcycle and his home. 

The campaign he worked for won the elections, but the violent actors remained a threat in the neighborhood. “You’re not a big enough fish to protect you,” the new mayor told his supporter.

So the man fled to the mountains with his two-year-old daughter for a few weeks, gathered what money he could and made his way to the U.S.–Mexico border last August.

Here, the man filed for asylum, explained Kim Hunter, a St. Paul immigration attorney who represented him in federal immigration court. (She declined to give her client’s name, as his case remains open for immigration review.)

His claim stalled at the border for a year, after running into new Trump administration asylum restrictions intended to stymie migrant “caravans.” Finally, the father and daughter from Honduras received asylum in early July.

Now, however, new regulations from the Trump administration could reverse that ruling—and potentially send tens of thousands of asylum applicants back to face violence in their home countries. 

Asylum seekers in Minnesota escaping gang or terrorist violence could lose their claims based on the proposal issued June 10. The rule would also refuse asylum to anyone coming from a “third country,” but who applies from Canada or Mexico. 

Similar claims have secured asylum for many of the 1,500 immigrants who’ve won asylum in Minnesota over the last 20 years, according to a tracking site kept by Syracuse University. These have included Somali immigrants fleeing persecution from extremist groups like al-Shabaab or victims of domestic violence from Honduras.

“It’s hard to think of a client who would not be affected in some way,” said Hunter, who is critical of the Trump administration’s move. “They’re really just forcing people into impossible circumstances.”

The proposal specifically clamps down on the right to claim asylum for victims escaping violence from non-state actors, such as gangs or terrorist groups. Victims of gender-based violence would also lose their chance to apply for protection in the U.S.

Under the current system, asylum seekers must prove that they face a “credible fear” of persecution in their home country. This process begins with an interview in front of an asylum officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Next, applicants appear in an immigration court, where a judge decides whether to grant asylum or another form of relief. 

The new rule would complicate an asylum seeker’s ability to prove credible fear with an immigration officer. Immigration officials would be able to deny asylum cases as “frivolous.” 

Raising the standard of proof would allow officials “to better screen out non-meritorious claims and focus limited resources on claims much more likely to be determined to be meritorious by an immigration judge,” according to the proposed rule.  

President Donald J. Trump has spoken dismissively of people seeking asylum. “The biggest loophole drawing illegal aliens to our borders is the use of fraudulent or meritless asylum claims to gain entry into our great country,” Trump said in an April 2019 statement.

As of April, a total of 13,401 immigration cases are pending in Minnesota, according to the Syracuse University database. 

A 30-day public commenting period followed the announcement in June and ended Wednesday, July 15. Now, the administration is expected to review those comments before publishing the final rule. 

“I have no doubt that it will be published,” Hunter said. She added that she expects lawsuits will be filed promptly against the rule

Minnesota asylum seekers could no longer cite threats from al-Shabaab, Central American gangs

Andrea Cárcamo, the senior policy counsel at the St. Paul–based Center for Victims of Torture, added that the “massive move” would make a significant number of changes to the asylum system. But the deliberation process feels rushed and inadequate.

“Any part of this rule warrants a 60-day comment period,” Cárcamo said. “It doesn’t give advocates enough time to make their case.”

Hunter said the regulation poses a threat for potential asylum seekers from Somalia, who are primarily escaping violent extremist groups like al-Shabaab. Also at particular risk are asylum cases for immigrants from Central American countries escaping gang violence.

Almost 15 percent of the total asylum cases seen in Minnesota came from Somalia. Last year, a large portion of asylum seekers in Minnesota came from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

“The initial impetus is clearly Central American gang-based claims, but it also, of course, has many other effects that trickle over into many other areas,” Hunter said.

Cárcamo noted that asylum seekers from Central America often cite gender-based violence and gang violence, and would encounter particular difficulties with the rule. 

As an example, Cárcamo cited a person who fears being targeted by a gang because they were unable to pay a “war tax.” Looking at his clients at Center for Victims of Torture, Cárcamo said, “It’s likely that many of those who would otherwise qualify [for asylum] would not qualify anymore.”

Immigrants have the right to seek asylum in the United States if they’ve established a “credible fear” of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinions or association with a “particular social group.” This could be a tribe, ethnic group, or gender or sexual orientation. If granted asylum, people can apply for a green card after one year, and can receive resettlement services through the Minnesota Department of Human Services in the meantime.

More than 60,000 migrants seeking asylum in the United States have been sent to Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, as they wait for a decision on their asylum cases.

Immigration officers would gain discretionary power under the new regulation: an ability to deny asylum if they deem the application to be “frivolous.”

“Frivolous asylum applications are a costly detriment, resulting in wasted resources and increased processing times for an already overloaded immigration system,” the proposal says.

COVID-19 closes the border, freezes immigration courts, creating even bigger backlog

The COVID-19 pandemic has already granted the Trump administration an opportunity to restrict immigration to the United States, with thousands of asylum seekers turned away at the border as potential virus carriers. 

For asylum seekers already residing in the United States, Hunter said, pandemic-based court closures have repeatedly delayed their cases. This confusion is all too familiar to those navigating the American immigration system. The federal immigration court located at Ft. Snelling is slated to open at the end of July, but the date could be pushed back again. 

“There’s just no movement on those cases with courts, because the courts are closed,” Hunter said. “It’s just another measure designed to deny, and for those that they aren’t able to deny, to exhaust.”

Hunter said prior clogs to the asylum system have already made it harder for her clients to get work permits. And if they work without authorization? Their asylum case could be denied. 

Hunter, who called the language of the proposal “vicious,” described the new rules as yet another arbitrary restriction of an asylum system that’s already fairly impossible.

“They’re trying to take away what veneer of due process remains and turn it over to border officials and asylum officers,” she said—in other words, to eliminate the asylum process. 

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.