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'Heartless': Advocates bristle at Trump plan to charge asylum-seekers a fee

An attorney said the plan fits with other policy making to limit U.S. immigration to a “whiter, richer pool of immigrants."
Image: A Central American migrant and her baby cross the Rio Bravo to request asylum in the United States near El Paso on April 1, 2019.
A Central American migrant and her baby cross the Rio Bravo to request asylum in the United States near El Paso on April 1, 2019.Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

Sarah Sherman-Stokes, an attorney who has worked with asylum-seekers for a decade, sees the Trump administration’s plan to charge fees to apply for asylum as part of its “full-throttled attack” on immigrants.

President Donald Trump signed a memo Monday calling for changes to the asylum system, including charging a fee for processing applications and work permits.

“I have clients who come to my office who haven’t eaten, many unable to make rent for their families or staying with church members or friends, hoping they’ll stay in their good graces,” said Sherman-Stokes, associate director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Clinic at Boston University School of Law.

“I have clients who are so deeply traumatized, they are diagnosed with [post-traumatic stress disorder], depression, anxiety and panic attacks, it's hard for them to leave their home, let alone work, because of the trauma and persecution they suffered in their countries,” she said.

What the administration plans to charge was not immediately known. The fee is supposed to cover the cost of processing the applications.

The president also directed his attorney general and the Department of Homeland Security to take other regulatory actions within 90 days, such as:

  • Speed up the asylum process, including a decision whether to grant it, to 180 days, excluding appeals.
  • Bar people who entered or tried to enter the United States illegally from getting work permits before being granted asylum or some other protection from deportation.
  • Charge a fee for the initial work permit

Sherman-Stokes criticized the proposal, saying it fits with other rhetoric and policy making to limit U.S. immigration to a “whiter, richer pool of immigrants."

Her clients come from Central and South America, Ghana, Uganda, Cambodia, Russian and all over the world, she said.

Those who pay smugglers thousands of dollars to get to the border and seek asylum are in debt for that passage and “work day in and day out to pay that money,” Sherman-Stokes said. They must wait 180 days for a work permit.

“Some people are working in precarious situations, getting paid under the table to pay that money. These are people desperately living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. The situation makes them more exploitable.

Many asylum-seekers save what money they may have for lawyers to help them through the complex immigration system with hearings and documents that are not in their native language, she said.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Department of Homeland Security, said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday, “The president’s memo is another tragic step in the wrong direction.”

Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan appeared before the subcommittee Tuesday to explain the department’s annual budget request.

McAleenan said in the hearing that processing of asylum requests was up 120 percent in 2018 over 2017 and projections are that the agency will get about 70,000 asylum requests in the 2019 fiscal year that runs from Sept. 30, 2018 to Oct. 1.

In order to request asylum, a person must claim a credible fear of being returned to their home country. The Border Patrol refers all people making such a claim for credible fear interviews to determine if they meet the criteria for a court hearing.

In fiscal year 2018, 92,959 asylum claims were made at the southwest border, up from 55,584 in the 2017 fiscal year, according to DHS statistics.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigrant group, took issue on Twitter with some of the government's statistical claims about asylum:

Administration officials, including Trump, have repeatedly expressed frustration at U.S. laws and treaties the country has signed to provide refuge to people who are fleeing persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

More immigrants seeking asylum

In previous years, immigrants were mostly from Mexico, usually single men arriving to work. But in about 2013, the population began shifting to more children and families, who are asking for refuge from violence and poverty in their countries, mostly in Central America.

President Donald Trump has said that laws such as one that prohibits lengthy detention of children is being exploited by people who come with a child and request asylum, so they can be released quickly and disappear into the U.S. while they await adjudication of their cases.

Also, the DHS has complained that its border enforcement agencies are overwhelmed because of the number of people arriving at the border, lack of equipment and proper facilities to hold families, and the added demands of dealing with children. Recently, the Border Patrol kept families underneath an overpass in El Paso behind a chain-link fence while they awaited processing.

Agents’ workloads have increased because the administration has stopped taking asylum requests at legal ports of entry, that were usually handled by Customs officers. That’s led people who would usually go that route, to crossing the border illegally, outside legal ports, so that the Border Patrol is responsible for them.

"The system is full. We are well beyond our capacity," McAleenan said at the subcommittee hearing. "This means that the new waves of vulnerable populations arriving here and exacerbating the humanitarian security crisis at the border, we don't have room to hold them or the authority."

McAleenan asked not only for more funding and personnel for the 2020 budget but also for additional funding sooner. "Given the scale of what we're facing, we'll exhaust our resources before the end of the fiscal year," he said.


Archi Pyati, chief of policy at the Tahirih Justice Center, which assists and advocates for women and girls fleeing violence, said the proposed asylum changes will drive asylum-seekers deeper into poverty and leave them more vulnerable to victimization and being preyed on by traffickers and abusers and others.

“The current proposal is another example of downright poor policy, and it is also heartless,” Pyati said in a statement. “This scheme will fail to bring protection to those who need help and will cripple the already broken system even further."

The U.S. charges fees for a number of applications for immigration benefits. Applying to become a citizen is $640 plus $85 for the agency to collect electronic fingerprints, signatures and a photo. The money is not refunded if a person’s application is not approved.

People who cannot afford the cost and meet certain criteria have been been able to apply for waivers of the fees. But the Trump administration has sought to limit who can qualify for the waivers.

Michelle Dubert, NBC News associate producer in Washington, contributed.