WASHINGTON — Most U.S. asylum officers working in Boston and Newark, New Jersey, have been reassigned to interview migrant asylum-seekers crossing the southwest border, according to an Aug. 15 letter obtained by Sen. Jeff Merkley's office, potentially putting asylum applicants in the Northeast at risk.
In a tweet Wednesday night, Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who has been critical of the Trump administration's immigration policies, said, "I've learned that the Trump administration is suspending virtually all asylum claims processing for regions served by the Newark and Boston offices. There are over 40,000 cases pending in those offices."
The letter explains that as a result of the reassignments, the Newark office will continue to interview a small number of applicants there and the Boston office will not conduct new interviews for the time being.
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Immigrants applying for asylum in the interior of the United States often arrive by plane, fleeing from countries where they are under threat. They then have one year to apply for asylum status to remain in the country. Without staff to process their claims, asylum-seekers could face long backlogs for having their asylum applications approved and could lose work permits while they wait.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees asylum officers, fired back at Merkley via Twitter: "Just learned a Senator is falsely alleging @uscis Boston/Newark stopped processing asylum claims. Completely false! They are shifting *some* staff to help w/ credible fear workload resulting from the historic humanitarian crisis at the border that Congress REFUSES to help fix."
However, the letter sent from the directors of the Boston and Newark field offices said both offices will assign "a majority of interviewing officers" to the asylum interviews.
According to the letter, officers from the Newark and Boston offices "will continue to travel to the Southwest border, and an increased number of officers will be assigned to interview Credible Fear and Reasonable Fear cases either in-person or telephonically from the home offices." Interviews with asylum officers to establish that migrants have reason to fear returning to their home countries are the first hurdle for migrants seeking asylum.
A spokeswoman for USCIS referred to Cuccinelli's tweet when asked for comment.
Two former DHS officials told NBC News that White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, who is behind much of the administration's immigration policies, has been advocating for removing USCIS personnel from their offices in the interior of the country and placing them at the border since the spring. The officials said Miller believes reassigning officers will slow down the process for asylum-seekers and immigrants seeking other protections from the interior of the country.
Miller has also advocated for more border agents to interview asylum seekers at the border. Emails obtained by NBC News show that Miller wanted to know if the border agents were approving asylum claims at a lower rate than asylum officers.