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WASHINGTON — The White House is working on plans to make it harder for immigrants at the border to receive asylum by forcing them to do more to prove they have a credible fear of returning home and putting border agents in charge of the interview process, according to multiple senior administration officials.
The potential changes are part of President Donald Trump's overhaul of the Department of Homeland Security. Currently, asylum-seekers are interviewed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers and only need to express a fear of persecution in their home country in order to pass the first step in the process.
Several of Trump's top advisers have for months pushed outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to make such changes to the asylum process, officials said. Trump's senior adviser Stephen Miller in particular has argued that Customs and Border Protection agents will be tougher on asylum-seekers and will pass fewer of them on the initial screening, known as a credible fear interview, the sources said.
The strategy is part of an overall crackdown on asylum-seekers that is designed to grant fewer of them access to the United States.
The administration has already tried to make it harder for asylum-seekers through a variety of measures, most of which have been stopped by courts, including the "Remain in Mexico" policy that makes asylum-seekers wait in Mexico until their scheduled court date in the U.S.
Currently, about 90 percent of asylum-seekers pass the credible fear interview, according to data from DHS, but only about 10 percent go on to be granted asylum by a judge. Due to a backlog in immigration courts, those who pass the initial interview live in the U.S., either in detention or at large, for months or years while waiting for their cases to be adjudicated.
A sharp rise in the number of asylum-seekers, particularly families, has frustrated Trump in recent months and led to a push at the White House for harsher immigration policies. On Sunday, Nielsen was ousted, in part because she resisted plans to reinstate the separation of migrant families, as NBC News reported.
One CBP official who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity said border agents are already overwhelmed at the border and asking them to conduct asylum interviews will add to their burden and create backlogs in the system.
The right to seek asylum is protected by U.S. law and international treaties. The new policies are likely to be challenged in court by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which previously brought class action suits against the Trump administration for its immigration policies.
In response to a court order from the Ninth Circuit blocking the "Remain in Mexico" policy Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders wrote in a tweet, "President Trump will do whatever it takes to keep Americans safe."
After the Ninth Circuit ruling, Trump tweeted, "So unfair to the U.S. OUT OF CONTROL!" On Tuesday, Trump said it was untrue that he is thinking of reinstating his administration's child separation policy at the border.
A DHS spokesman declined to comment. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.