For asylum seekers who’ve travelled hundreds of miles to reach safety in the US, a one-hour interview could be the difference between a new life or deportation.
Asylum seekers who don’t have prior permission to be in the US have to pass a “credible fear” (pdf) test in order to stay. During this screening, asylum seekers have to demonstrate a well-founded fear that if they are deported home, they will face persecution. This persecution must be based upon one of five characteristics: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
The vast majority of asylum seekers in the US are from the “Northern Triangle”—Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Many are escaping political instability, gang violence, and drug trafficking. It’s during the credible fear interviews that applicants have to recount the trauma they’ve experienced and persecution they are fleeing. Applicants who pass this screening then get a chance to make their case in immigration court. Applicants who do not pass the screening are at risk of deportation.
But Katy Murdza, advocacy coordinator of the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which provides legal support to the children and women detained at the Dilley family immigration detention center in south Texas, says the test doesn’t always work as intended. For those who fail the credible fear interview, the problem is often that “something prevented them from telling their stories,” she says.
What happens during a credible fear screening?
Credible fear tests usually take place in detention centers, and there’s little support for applicants, who struggle with language barriers and the complexity of US asylum law, Murdza says.
Conducted by an asylum officer, the credible interview usually lasts about an hour. Applicants don’t have lawyers assigned to represent them, but they can have one come to the interview with them. These lawyers act more like consultants, Murdza says. They can make a brief statement at the end and are sometimes allowed to comment on issues like poor interpretation—if the asylum officer permits. “It’s not like having a lawyer in court…where they can argue for you,” Murdza says.
Applicants are asked three core questions:
- Have you ever been harmed in your country?
- Have you or your child ever been threatened in your country?
- Have you ever been harmed because of your religion, your race, or any other category of asylum?
What should asylum-seekers focus on in their application?
Not all terrifying information is relevant in a credible fear interview. Murdza’s clients sometimes recount fleeing a dangerous area where dozens were killed, but she says this isn’t taken into account unless the applicant can argue that attacks are more likely to happen to them, due to reasons that are protected by asylum law (like religious or racial persecution.)
Earlier this year, attorney general Jeff Sessions announced a controversial decision to remove asylum protections from people fleeing domestic or gang violence. Previously, a Honduran woman fleeing gang violence would have had a good chance of passing her credible fear test. However, now she’ll have to also show that the Honduran government condoned the violent behavior or did very little to protect her.
In practice, this means that refugee advocates must encourage applicants to provide more detail. Instead of saying, “Everyone knows you can’t go to the police,” Murdza says that applicants should provide examples of when they or people they know asked the authorities for help, and received none.
Murdza recounts cases where women have fled central America for the US because a gang member is threatening to make them their “wife” or “girlfriend.” Such women often must choose between being enslaved and routinely raped, or flee the country. But after Sessions’s announcement, being targeted as a woman by a gang member does not fit the criteria of asylum law.
Murdza also works with applicants to discuss instances where they have been discriminated against because of their race or the social group they belong to. Often, it’s something that applicants are so used to that it doesn’t strike them as the most obvious thing to talk about in the interview. “It so normalized and the other thing [gang violence] has been very extreme and very recent,” Murdza explains.
What can go wrong in an asylum interview?
The stakes are high during these interviews. “It’s a really difficult position that asylum officers are placed in. It is such a subjective thing. It depends on whether they believe the client or not; it depends on how many inconsistencies they believe are on the testimony. Sometimes it depends on the way the interpreter interprets. It makes for a very difficult way of presenting what could possibly be a drastic, life-altering decision,” said Carlos Moctezuma García, an immigration lawyer based in McAllen, Texas.
These interviews can be extremely distressing to the applicants. Family doctor Anita Ravi, who recently visited a family detention center to prepare women with upcoming credible fear interviews, described scenes where “women are tasked with soothing screaming toddlers, attempting to mask their own tears from their all-too-aware children, and trying to process the potentially life-saving legal information offered by the team,” in a recent blogpost.
Murdza says clients can often feel rushed during these interviews and aren’t able to corroborate evidence. Murdza describes a case where a woman fled her country of origin with her father and tried to apply for asylum in the US. They were separated at the border and put in different detention facilities. Murdza had repeatedly asked officials to allow the woman to have a phone call with her father, who had instructed the entire family to flee at short notice. She needed to speak to her father to get more information on the threat they faced at home. But the applicant was denied that request and was “pressured” to go through the interview without talking to her father. She didn’t pass her credible fear test.
Some credible fear interviews take place entirely over the phone. This practice, which predates the Trump administration, makes it even more difficult to fairly assesses an asylum claim.
How many immigrants pass their credible fear screening?
Murdza says that less than 1% of the clients she works with are deported. The overwhelming majority pass their credible fear screening. “It supposed to be a screening process,” Murdza says, one that costs US tax payers $320 per day per detainee, yet “almost everyone is getting out anyways, it’s not screening anything.”
Statistics reflect Murdza’s experience. In January 2018, the latest month for which credible-fear test figures are available, nearly 90% of decisions were positive. Figures were similar in previous months.
But there is some anecdotal evidence that suggests more applicants have been receiving negative decisions more recently.
“I started seeing a lot of credible fear interviews being denied, more than I’ve ever seen,” García said. He’s talked to dozens of detainees who said they hadn’t passed their credible fear test. In the past, the share of immigrants who got a negative result was much lower, he said.
Such a spike in denials would predate Sessions’s ruling on domestic and gang violence. García says it started around April, when the Trump administration started prosecuting every immigrant apprehended at the border under its “zero-tolerance” policy.