Jurisprudence

Our Broken Refugee Process Is Sending Haitian Asylum Seekers Back to Danger

An immigrant man points to a small child as he is confronted by a border officer.
Immigrant families from Haiti and Brazil are taken into custody by a U.S. Border Patrol agent at the U.S.-Mexico border on December 07, 2021 in Yuma, Arizona. John Moore/Getty Images

I first met David in November 2021, while volunteering as an attorney for asylum seekers detained at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center in Aurora, Colorado. David, which is a pseudonym for reasons that will become clear, has a story similar to many asylum seekers in this country. It’s a story that speaks to the brokenness of how we assess asylum claims.

Like many people held in Aurora, David was anxiously waiting for the critical first step in his asylum claim, the credible fear interview. During this high-stakes interview, a government asylum officer decides whether an applicant demonstrates a “credible fear” of returning home. If the officer agrees, the applicant can formally request asylum before an immigration judge. If not, they’ll face immediate deportation. The credible fear interview is one part of a larger system called “expedited removal,” which—just as it sounds—is designed to remove migrants from our country as quickly as possible.

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David left his wife and family in Haiti after several of his neighbors brutally beat him with a wrench, threatened to kill his wife and mother, slaughtered and strung up his livestock, and burned his barn to the ground. First, David fled to South America, where he lived until Covid-19 devastated the local economy and he was physically attacked for taking local jobs. Then, again fearing for his life, David fled South America to seek asylum in the United States, where he was put in an ICE detention center. When I spoke with him, he was clearly traumatized by what he had experienced in Haiti, his journey without his family through South America, and the conditions of his detention in the U.S.

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When the time came for his credible fear interview, the same fears that led David to flee Haiti hindered his ability to tell his story. He was worried the government interpreter would disclose his accusations to his persecutors back home, who would retaliate against his family. Having been through trauma, he was anxious to answer confusing questions about humiliating and painful events. For part of his interview, the government interpreter didn’t even speak his language, Haitian Creole. David didn’t object—he was afraid that raising any issues might hurt his chances.

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Despite these barriers, David managed to detail numerous examples of being beaten and his life and his family’s lives being threatened. Frustratingly, even though the officer believed David’s account, he concluded it was not “sufficiently serious” to establish a credible fear.

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While the government has built in a review process, it too is flawed. In David’s case, I knew the asylum officer had made multiple legal and procedural errors during the interview. Working with Jocelyn Dyer at the Immigration Justice Campaign and our partners at the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, we prepared a Request for Reconsideration detailing those errors and offering additional witness statements describing the dangers that David and his family continue to face. Unfortunately, the Asylum Office denied the request almost immediately and without explanation. Given the impossibly quick turnaround time, it was clear that any review of this life-or-death situation was nonexistent or superficial at best.

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Despite the high stakes of the credible fear interview, it’s usually held behind closed doors with no attorney present. In many cases only the asylum officer and the applicant are in the room, and the only record of the interview will be whatever notes are taken by the asylum officer. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the credible fear interview is part of a system that’s fundamentally set up to deport people as rapidly as possible. To build a fair asylum process, we need to start by rethinking the entire “expedited removal” framework. Our asylum system should prioritize giving asylum seekers a fair shot to make their case. Instead, we start with the goal of a quick deportation.

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Our laws and values require us to offer asylum seekers a meaningful chance at protection. In David’s case, as with many asylum seekers, this commitment was broken.

It was hard for me to tell David that he was out of legal options to stay in the U.S. Even speaking through a translator, I could hear the panic in his voice as he told me that people would be waiting at the airport to kill him. He said he had spent all his money coming to the U.S., that his wife and mother had fled Haiti themselves, and that he did not know where or how to live in a deteriorating country where violence and instability are growing every day.

Since being deported, David texts me details of his life. He shared that he went into hiding, sending me graphic videos of family members who have been attacked. He sounds like he is still trying to convince someone—anyone—that his fear is credible and undeniable. Like many asylum seekers, David came to the U.S. trusting that we’d offer him a fair shot at protection. Instead, he left worse than before he came.

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