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Immigrants’ Rights Organizations Urge DHS to Investigate Houston Asylum Office's Mishandling of Credible Fear Interviews

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, 10 civil and immigrants’ rights organizations filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) calling for an investigation of the Houston Asylum Office’s handling of Credible Fear Interviews (CFIs) for asylum seekers. The organizations are: the National Immigration Project, RAICES, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Immigration Equality, American Gateways, University of San Francisco School of Law’s Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), and the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M School of Law.  
Most asylum seekers who enter the United States without a visa must undergo a CFI – a preliminary screening to establish a significant possibility of having a legitimate asylum claim - before they can present their asylum case to an immigration judge. The CRCL complaint details more than two dozen instances of Asylum Officers mishandling these critical claims. For example, the Houston Asylum Office frequently: schedules CFIs without informing the asylum seeker’s attorney; forces asylum seekers to be interviewed in languages in which they are not fluent; applies incorrect standards in evaluating asylum seekers’ claims; and uses adversarial interview techniques on vulnerable applicants, including children and survivors of persecution and torture. The complaint calls for a full investigation and makes recommendations for the Houston Asylum Office to ensure the rights of all asylum seekers. 
“The expedited removal system wrongfully leaves many individuals without an opportunity to apply for immigration benefits. The only protection individuals have in this system is the credible fear interview, which, by law, should be a minimal screening, not an adversarial interrogation. The Houston Asylum Office's gross mishandling of these critical interviews is a violation of human rights and must be investigated immediately,” said Victoria Neilson, Supervising Attorney at the National Immigration Project. 
"People who are running for their lives to escape violence in their home countries deserve to share their story in their own language with someone who will listen and follow the law," said Edna Yang, co-Executive Director of American Gateways. "The way the Houston Asylum Office has been mishandling these claims is unlawful and threatens the safety of families that have a right to make their case." 
“When we interviewed clients who ended up detained in Louisiana, it was clear that they had been totally misled about the CFI process,” said Bill Ong Hing, Professor of Law and Migration Studies, University of San Francisco. “The continuing violation of international human rights standards must cease.” 
“The Credible Fear Interview is the only pathway for many people seeking safe haven in the United States. It is critical that DHS carry out the process with integrity to ensure that those fleeing persecution have a chance to be heard and to obtain protection in the United States,” said Eric Cohen, Executive Director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.” 
“It is unconscionable that asylum seekers who flee persecution are denied a genuine opportunity to ask for safe haven in the U.S.,” said Liza Doubossarskaia, Staff Attorney for Immigration Equality’s Detention Program. “LGBTQ individuals who face violence and even death in their countries of origin are at the mercy of asylum officers, who too often fail to carry out their responsibilities. Without a lawful and humane initial screening, asylum will remain out of reach for those who desperately need it.” 
“The credible fear interview (CFI) process is riddled with legal and procedural errors and operates within a xenophobic framework intended to quickly deport vulnerable asylum-seeking communities,” said Tsion Gurmu, Legal Director at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. “Black immigrants in particular are punitively detained for extended periods of time without access to credible fear interviews, counsel, or any due process.” 
“The deeply flawed CFI process causes asylum seekers to remain detained for months or years, all at taxpayer expense,” said Fatma Marouf, Professor and Director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M School of Law. “Fixing the problems with this threshold screening can prevent so much unnecessary suffering.” 
“Our current immigration laws and the ways this country chooses to implement them are very much rooted in xenophobia and white supremacy. Expedited Removal is devoid of due process, accountability, impartiality, or protections for folks desperately seeking the promise of asylum protection reflected in our laws.” said Javier Hidalgo, Director of Pre-Removal Services at RAICES. “It is a vehicle by which we repeatedly observe the Houston Asylum office wrongly prevent countless individuals from ever accessing the asylum process, often along racist, sexist, xenophobic and even political lines. Yet, despite repeatedly being alerted to improper conduct by asylum officers during the expedited removal process, the Houston Asylum Office does nothing to correct the egregious conduct of its officers.” 
“The Houston Asylum Office screens thousands of asylum seekers who are detained in the dehumanizing, CoreCivic-run Adams County Correctional facility with no meaningful access to counsel or even basic legal orientation programming,” said Mich P. Gonzalez, associate director of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) advocacy at the SPLC. “There is no doubt that the mishandling of asylum screenings by this office has resulted in both re-traumatization of asylum seekers and mass deprivation of due process. The agencies must undertake a full investigation and take steps to immediately address these rampant violations.” 
"Credible or reasonable fear interviews are the critical first step to asking for protection in the United States," said Laura St. John, Legal Director at the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project. "When these interviews are not conducted fairly, people fleeing persecution suffer, particularly people who are detained. Conducting them in a language in which the individual is not fluent, conducting them in an adversarial manner, and scheduling them in a way that makes it next to impossible for counsel to be present are all violations of asylum seekers' basic rights. When these interviews are conducted in such a manner, the system is neither just nor efficient and people with valid claims for protection are placed directly in harm’s way. Meaningful oversight and accountability in this system is long overdue."