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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

In Trump's America, Are Asylum Seekers at Risk of Arrest?

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A recent case from Florida has raised concern in the asylum-seeker community. On April 26, Marco Coello, a Venezuelan asylum seeker, went to his interview at the Miami Asylum Office. Instead of meeting with an officer to discuss his case, he was detained by Homeland Security officers.
If you see these guys at your asylum interview, it's probably a bad sign.

Fortunately, for Mr. Coello, he was released the next day, after various people--including Senator Marco Rubio--intervened on his behalf. An ICE spokesman said that he was detained "because he has a misdemeanor criminal conviction and had stayed in the U.S. longer than his visa allowed."


I contacted Mr. Coello's attorney, Elizabeth Blandon, and learned that his conviction was for trespassing (he was originally charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana). I also learned that the Asylum Office issued a letter on the day of his arrest stating that the case had been sent to the Immigration Court. In fact, Mr. Coello's case is not with the court, and the issue of jurisdiction (i.e., who will hear his case--an Asylum Officer or an Immigration Judge) is yet to be worked out. Until that happens, his case remains in limbo.


Frankly, it is unclear to me why ICE detained Mr. Coello. His conviction was for a minor violation, which is probably not even a deportable offense. One possibility is that ICE targeted him due to the mistaken belief that he had more than one misdemeanor conviction (trespassing and marijuana possession). Another, more conspiracy-minded, possibility is that ICE arrested Mr. Coello because he was a well-known activist from Venezuela. As the situation in Venezuela has deteriorated, the number of asylum cases from that country has soared. Currently, Venezuelans are filing more affirmative asylum applications than people from any other country. Maybe ICE wanted to send a message in an effort to intimidate potential Venezuelan applicants and stem the tide of cases from that troubled country. Normally, I tend to shy away from such conspiracy theories, but in this case, where the applicant is well-known in his community, I am not so sure.


Mr. Coello's case is not the only instance of an asylum seeker being detained since President Trump took office, and rumors have been swirling about the new hard-line approach of his Administration. We have heard reports about an HIV-positive Russian asylum seeker, who was detained after visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands and then returning to the mainland (the problem here is probably that a person must go through customs to enter the U.S. from the USVI, and he did not get Advance Parole before leaving and trying to return). He was held for a month before being released. There have also been examples of ICE officials arresting asylum seekers who have been charged with crimes when they appear in criminal court. (And of course, there are the thousands of asylum seekers who arrive via the Mexican border without a visa and who are detained when they request asylum--but this began en masse long before President Trump's time).


It's not just asylum seekers who are being detained. Aliens applying for other USCIS benefits have also been arrested. For example, there were five cases where immigrants were notified to appear for USCIS interviews, and were then detained when they arrived at the USCIS office. Apparently, all five had prior deportation orders from Immigration Judges. There's also the case of a woman who was arrested at a courthouse after filing a protective order against her ex-boyfriend. According to one news source, the woman had an extensive criminal history and had illegally re-entered the United States after being deported.


In addition to all this, there is the now-famous (at least in immigration circles) case from February of a domestic flight from San Francisco to New York where ICE agents checked IDs for everyone disembarking the plane (ICE claims that the searches were "consensual"). Supposedly, ICE was searching for an alien with a criminal record. Turns out, he wasn't even on the flight.


So what does all this mean? Do asylum seekers risk arrest when they appear for their interview? Or when they show up for a court hearing? Or when they travel domestically? The short answer, at least for now, is no, no, and no.


First, except for the person returning from the USVI, the common denominator in the above cases is that all the aliens had a criminal conviction and/or a deportation order. If you do not have a criminal record or a removal order, there is no reason to believe that ICE will detain you if you appear for an appointment, court date or domestic flight. Indeed, except for the examples above involving criminal convictions and deportation orders, I have not heard about any asylum applicants being detained.


If you do have a criminal conviction (or even an arrest) or a removal order, then there is some risk, but it's unclear exactly how to assess that risk. How likely is it that a person with a criminal record or removal order will be detained if they appear for an interview? Does the likelihood of detention increase with the severity of the criminal conduct? I do not know, and I am not confident that the few examples discussed above help us evaluate the chance of trouble. But given that there is some risk, it seems worthwhile for anyone with a criminal conviction or a removal order to consult with an attorney before going to an appointment with USCIS.


If I had a conviction or a deportation order, and I was scheduled for an asylum or other USCIS interview, I would want to know a few things from my lawyer. First, I would want to know the likelihood of obtaining the benefit that I have applied for. If my case is very weak and unlikely to succeed, maybe I would be less willing to appear for an interview where I risked detention. Also, I would want to know how seriously the government views my criminal conduct. If the conviction is very minor, I would expect that the likelihood of ICE detention is low (but maybe not, as Mr. Coello's trespassing conviction illustrates). If the conviction is serious--and many convictions subject an alien to mandatory detention--I would want to know that too. In fact, I would want to know all this before I even apply for asylum or other immigration benefit. Why start the process when it is unlikely I will be able to successfully complete it, especially if applying for the benefit exposes me to possible arrest?


Every person must make his or her own decision, weighing the risk and reward of applying for an immigration benefit. But if you have been arrested or convicted of a crime, or if you already have a deportation order, it would be wise to talk to a lawyer before you file an application or attend an interview with USCIS.

Originally posted on the Asylumist at www.Asylumist.com.

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Comments

  1. ImmigrationLawBlogs's Avatar
    Jason, I understand your concern, but I think you are judging Trump against Obama's enforcement policies. Under Obama, ICE officers needed special permission to arrest a deportable alien who was not in one of the priority categories. Although Trump has enforcement priorities too, ICE officers are allowed to arrest any deportable alien they choose to arrest. I suspect ICE officers who haven't made many arrests of priority aliens will be padding their figures by arresting aliens who are not priorities.

    Is that wrong? Only if you think the immigration laws shouldn't be enforced, and many people do feel that way. Trump, however, is not one of them, and neither will the officials in his administration...if they don't want to hear, "You're fired!"

    But the situation actually is much worse than this policy change indicates. If you look at Trump's executive orders, you will see that he is going to use the full statutory reach of expedited removal proceedings, which will make it possible for him to deport millions of noncriminal aliens without a hearing before an immigration judge.

    I explain in more detail in an article I just wrote that the Hill is supposed to publish tomorrow morning.

    Nolan Rappaport
  2. JDzubow's Avatar
    Thank you for the comment - I will look for the article. I don't have a problem with enforcing the law, but I do think it is helpful for people to know what is going on, and there are a lot of rumors these days. Also, the idea that non-criminal asylum seekers should be detained is worrying many people. As far as I can tell, that is not happening, and even if there is more expedited removal, it should not happen (unless the ICE agents violate the law). Take care, Jason
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