Washington — In a rare policy reversal, the Trump administration on Thursday announced it will reinstate a program granting temporary reprieve from deportation for immigrants facing life-threatening medical conditions and other humanitarian circumstances, undoing a decision that sparked widespread condemnation.
The Department of Homeland Security notified Congress that Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan instructed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to resume considering all applications for deferred action, as the relief is officially known.
Without notifying the public or Congress, the administration had stopped granting non-military requests for this relief from deportation, a policy shift that quietly went into effect on August 7. After massive public uproar, officials partly reversed course earlier this month, saying they would reopen cases that were pending on the date the change was instituted.
But Thursday’s announcement appeared to be a full reversal, with USCIS confirming that it would “revert” to the adjudication guidelines in place on August 6. A USCIS official also said the agency had already reopened about 400 petitions it had denied this summer.
The outcry over the decision started after attorneys representing children and families undergoing life-saving medical care in the U.S. began receiving denial notices from USCIS that said the agency was no longer considering applications for non-military deferred action. Immigrants like 16-year-old Jonathan Sanchez, who is receiving treatment for cystic fibrosis in Boston, had portrayed the decision as a death sentence.
“In my perspective, it’s making legal homicide,” he told CBS News in August.
Democrats, who had been scathing in their criticism of the controversial move, welcomed the administration’s reversal. But they said the relief should never have been terminated in the first place.
“It should not take an emergency hearing by Congress — and threats for more — to force the Trump Administration to do the right thing,” Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, who chairs the House Oversight Committee that received Thursday’s notification, said in a statement. “Because of the secrecy and obstruction surrounding this policy, we will be taking additional steps to verify that these children and their families do not need to live in fear and uncertainty.”
Along with saying the decision to scrap the program would jeopardize the lives of vulnerable immigrants and children, Democrats and immigrant advocates had lambasted the administration for not notifying the public or Congress about the shift in policy.
In a letter to top officials at the Department of Homeland Security late last month, which oversees USCIS, more than 100 Democrats in Congress said they were concerned about USCIS effectively saying it was outsourcing non-military deferred action requests to ICE, an agency most undocumented immigrants fear because it carries out deportations.
“Requiring that prospective applicants request this humanitarian relief by applying to an immigration enforcement agency that detains and deports hundreds of thousands of immigrants annually, will deter many vulnerable children and families from coming forward and seeking life-saving protection,” the lawmakers wrote.
On Friday, the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Ben Johnson, said USCIS recognized it was heading in the “wrong direction” and praised recipients of the relief for raising awareness about the program’s abrupt and short-lived termination.
“We welcome the decision of the agency to reverse the change in policy. Impacted clients, many of them children, brought the cruelty of this rescission to light through their bravery and courage sharing their stories with the agency, the media, and Congress,” Johnson said.
In a policy reversal, the Trump administration on Thursday said it would resume a program that enabled some immigrants to remain in the country without fear of deportation while undergoing lifesaving medical treatment.
The unannounced termination last month of much of the so-called deferred action program generated public outrage and drew sharp rebuke from the medical establishment. Among those ordered to leave the country in 33 days or face deportation was Maria Isabel Bueso, who had been involved in clinical trials that led to the approval of a drug to extend the lives of those with her rare genetic disease.
Last week, Ms. Bueso and other young immigrants with serious illnesses told a House Oversight subcommittee that their survival depended on staying in the country, and pleaded for reinstatement of the program.
The Department of Homeland Security informed the House Oversight Committee on Thursday that, at the direction of Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary, it would resume consideration of requests for deferrals. A spokesman for the United States and Citizenship Immigration Services, which had originally rescinded the program, confirmed the decision.
Ms. Bueso and others had received letters in August from the agency, which adjudicates immigration benefits, notifying them that their requests to remain in the country had been denied. That drew criticism from lawyers, Democratic lawmakers and doctors, who said their patients were being issued a death sentence.
A few weeks later, the government said it would reopen the cases of those who had received denials, sending them letters to that effect. However, it did not tell them whether their requests had been granted or clarify how other applicants should proceed. It said only that cases would be considered by another agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But that agency, which oversees deportations, told The New York Times that it had not been consulted and was not prepared to take on the role.
Representative Ayanna S. Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, sponsored a letter signed by more than 120 members of Congress demanding answers from homeland security. She then called for an emergency oversight hearing about the elimination of the program.
On Thursday, Michael Anderson, president of Benioff Children’s Hospital at the University of California, San Francisco, where Ms. Bueso receives weekly treatment, said, “We hope this will apply to every patient who requires lifesaving care, including our patient Isabel Bueso and other children in her situation.”
Ms. Bueso, who has an enzyme disease that causes dwarfism and other physical deformities, has remained in the country since she was 7 to receive treatment and participate in additional medical studies; she has renewed her deferred action status every two years. Her parents pay for private health insurance to cover her care.
“While we have not received any official confirmation that our deferred action case will be approved,” Ms. Bueso said, “we are cautiously optimistic about this news.”
Asylum officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, were reeling after John Lafferty, director of the asylum division, was replaced on Monday by Andrew Davidson, former deputy associate director for USCIS’s fraud detection and national security directorate. Then came the Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday reinstating the Trump administration’s “third-country” rule, which effectively denies asylum to all Central American immigrants if they passed through another country on the way to the U.S. border with Mexico. It has been a very bad week for defenders of political asylum in the United States.
Lafferty had previously worked as a lawyer at Catholic Charities, an immigrant legal services nonprofit, and the asylum officers who worked under him at USCIS have generally had similar backgrounds. Many are highly educated attorneys who have worked in nonprofits assisting immigrants with asylum claims rather than trying to deport them. Lafferty’s ousting and replacement by a fraud investigator is just the latest development in the Trump administration’s assault on the asylum system, according to a USCIS asylum officer who contacted The Intercept. The asylum officer’s name is being withheld to protect against retaliation.
In recent months, Customs and Border Protection agents have been conducting asylum screening interviews in place of asylum and refugee officers from USCIS. These interviews have been taking place in detention centers in border states. Perhaps more ominously, they are also happening with immigrants trapped in Mexico by the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. Mexico is also where many immigrants will be dumped as the “third country” policy rolls out.
MPP forces asylum-seekers to live in dangerous Mexico border cities while awaiting intermittent court hearings in the U.S. As of this month, 42,000 men, women, and children are trapped in MPP. Many have been raped, robbed, and kidnapped in Mexico. They want desperately to escape the dangers they face, and many ask for what is called a “non-refoulement” interview so they can tell government officials about the violence they’ve suffered in Mexico, and their need to be removed from MPP and permitted to enter the U.S.
Photo: Paul Ratje
Until recently, the officer said, such interviews were done exclusively by USCIS asylum officers, who undergo extensive, long-term training to conduct this kind of interview. Many are attorneys and have gone through at least 10 weeks of training. They are required to spend four hours a week on continuing education and legal policy and procedure. And even after training is completed, supervisors review the interviewers’ notes for mistakes and correct their findings if significant errors are found.
The asylum officer said that many of their colleagues and superiors have been troubled by new draconian requirements for MPP interviewees — requirements that have resulted in only about 5 percent of interviewed immigrants being removed from the program. The fact that someone has already been kidnapped or raped in Mexico is not enough for them to be removed from MPP. That is because passing the interview requires evidence not that the violence might happen again, but that it probably will reoccur.
The officer believes that MPP unconstitutionally deprives refugees of due process. That belief was the subject of an amicus brief filed by the officers’ union recently in the 9th Circuit, arguing that the government cannot force asylum officers to make illegal decisions. The officers have struggled to interpret MPP so that they can fulfill the spirit of the law: that people with legitimate claims deserve the chance to present their full claim before a judge.
The Intercept asked USCIS if asylum officers were being pressured by the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security to break the law. A spokesperson responded that that DHS policies and regulations such as for MPP and the third country rule “are carefully drafted and reviewed not only by agency counsel, but also by DHS counsel and DOJ to ensure legal sufficiency and compliance with existing immigration laws.”
But Customs and Border Protection officers who conduct the interviews have different training and a different agenda, the asylum officer said.
The officer said that CBP agents with no legal background are receiving as little as two weeks of training. As a result — or maybe deliberately — they commit errors.
Photo: Paul Ratje
The officer recalled an incorrect decision by a CBP agent. The agent finished the interview and wrote a report. Reading it, a USCIS asylum officer who had been sitting in noticed that the CBP agent had neglected to classify the immigrant as a member of an oppressed group in their home country. That is clear grounds for an asylum claim, and the USCIS employee’s interview notes clearly identified the immigrant as a member of that group. The CBP officer’s report did not. Whether the omission “was on purpose or by accident, we can’t know,” the asylum officer said. “But it’s not a good sign.”
The officer suspects malfeasance, however, because “CBP officers routinely fake paperwork. Several times a week I would speak to someone whose interview notes with CBP were wildly inaccurate, either intentionally or unintentionally.”
For example, the officer described speaking with many immigrants who, according to CBP, had signed a sworn affidavit saying they were not afraid to return to their country — yet the immigrants denied ever having been asked the question.
“The most obvious fake thing I see on paperwork these days,” the officer added, “is ‘Subject claims to fluently speak Spanish.’” In fact, the officer said, “They know 10 words of Spanish because they’re from the mountains of Guatemala and only speak an obscure Mayan language.”
CBP now has at least 75 officers who can do the MPP non-refoulement interview, the asylum officer said, and these days border agents are doing many, if not most, of the interviews. Almost everyone interviewed receives a negative determination and is sent back to Mexico. “I think their end goal,” the asylum officer said of the Trump administration, “is to have all CBP stations have CBP officers do these interviews because then they are no longer being kicked up to us. CBP hates sending stuff to us. Our positive rates are very high and CBP hates that.”
The Intercept asked CBP to respond to the officer’s claims that its agents make mistakes, possibly deliberately. A CBP spokesperson did not respond to that question but stated that “in addition to the training that is received at the Border Patrol Academy, Border Patrol Agents in the Pilot Program receive 5 weeks of training under U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services lesson plans to conduct Credible Fear interviews.”
The asylum officer is also troubled that no attorneys are allowed to accompany immigrants to MPP interviews; the immigrants need attorneys. “These people are extremely confused. There’s all sorts of reasons why someone wouldn’t be able to tell you what happened to them, where an attorney is able to find out, if nothing else because they have more than the 30 to 60 minutes we have to do an interview.”
For now, USCIS supervisors are still reviewing MPP decisions, including those done by CBP agents, but the asylum officer is concerned that even that safeguard could be eliminated. When asylum and refugee officers do other types of interviews, they are required to write substantial narratives justifying their findings. That does not happen with MPP. “The scary part is that the officer doesn’t have to justify their decision. They just check a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ So you can’t know what the quality of their analysis was.”
As for the new third country policy, interviewers — whether they are asylum officers or CBP agents — are being ordered to automatically disqualify all immigrants except for those who show that they were trafficked or were denied asylum in other countries, or can prove that they are more likely than not to be persecuted or tortured in their home country. The bar is extremely high, and for anyone who does pass the interview, the asylum officer said, the government “can always return them to Mexico under MPP. It’s a supervillain plan.”
The government’s goal now is to turn everyone away, the officer said. That will empty currently crowded detention centers to make room for immigrants who have been picked up in the U.S. interior rather than at the border.
The officer described feeling horrified, even physically sickened, by these new policies under Trump, and by what the asylum interview process has become. Still, USCIS officers are trying to do their interviews comprehensively and correctly. For instance, the officer said, it’s important to ask immigrants if they were trafficked or if they were compelled to have sex with their smugglers, or were otherwise forced to remain with or work for smugglers who demanded higher fees than were previously agreed upon. These are common instances of trafficking. Yet the officer already knows of one case where a CBP agent paid no attention to a girl who repeatedly described being trafficked.
The officer could leave USCIS and get another job, but stays on. “I’m doing harm reduction with my own government. It’s insane. The alternative is, who’s going to come in and take my place?”
Update: September 13, 2019, 3 p.m.
This article has been updated with a statement from Customs and Border Protection that was received after publication.
The Center for Immigration Studies, a far-right, anti-immigrant group, was frequently cited by major U.S. newspapers in the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency — without mention of the group’s deep ties to the Trump administration, according to a report released Thursday.
Ninety percent of news articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today that cited the Center for Immigration Studies from 2014 to 2017 did not mention “the extremist nature of the group or its ties with the Trump administration,” according to “The Language of Immigration Reporting: Normalizing vs. Watchdogging in a Nativist Age.” The report, which was produced by researchers at Define American, a nonprofit media and culture organization, and Media Cloud, a project of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, focuses on immigration reporting in those outlets over a four-year period starting in 2014.
The researchers found that the Center for Immigration Studies — which was founded by the late John Tanton, a white nationalist considered to be the father of the modern anti-immigrant movement — was often cited as a neutral authority in providing expert opinion or data. In 2018, the news outlets did a slightly better job of identifying the group, with context missing only 82 percent of the time, and negative sentiment expressed in 13 percent of references.
“Basic standards of journalistic integrity are that these organizations be properly contextualized as the white nationalist organizations that they are.”
Hassan Ahmad, a Virginia-based immigration lawyer who has sued the University of Michigan for the release of Tanton’s archives housed there, said it’s important for news organizations to explain what these Tanton-linked groups are. Such context is necessary, he said, because the groups’ ideology, which he described as “camouflaged white nationalism,” has become enmeshed in the national conversation.
“When it affects our discourse — or infects our discourse — on immigration so deeply, then it’s hard for even Democrats to stay away from it,” Ahmad said. “And that’s why it’s so important for there to be proper contextualization whenever these organizations speak.”
Ahmad added, “Quite frankly, these organizations, they are not legitimate opposition voice in the immigration debate. They’re a white nationalist voice. If people want to give them airtime, that’s their thing. But I think basic standards of journalistic integrity are that these organizations be properly contextualized as the white nationalist organizations that they are.”
The Define American report also noted that Trump’s rise brought with it an overall increase in immigration coverage. At the same time, however, the study noted that the news outlets under review increasingly used dehumanizing language, such as “illegal immigrants” or “illegal aliens.”
Image: Courtesy of Define American
The terms often appeared in direct quotes from Trump or his political allies, an indication that the bump was more a consequence of newsmakers using those terms with increasing frequency, rather than a stylistic shift by the news outlets. Still, the Define American authors say, reporters and editors who choose to repeat such terminology in their work have a responsibility to contextualize it.
“Ideally, we could see a 500 percent increase in immigration stories and zero increase in dehumanizing terms used,” said Kristian Ramos, communications director at Define American and an author of the report.
“This type of reporting is not occurring in a vacuum: White supremacists are killing Latinos in Walmarts to stop an ‘invasion’ of Hispanics into Texas,” Ramos added, referring to the manifesto believed to have been written by the suspect in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, last month. “The words reporters are using matter. Just because there is more immigration reporting overall does not require reporters to fall into old tropes, outdated language, and dehumanization.”
A Nativist Godfather
Dr. John Tanton, an ophthalmologist by training, poses in his Petoskey, Michigan, office, February 1989.
Photo: Alan R. Kamuda/Detroit Free Press via ZUMA Wire
John Tanton, who died in July, spent the last four decades of his life building an anti-immigrant movement rooted in white nationalism. An ophthalmologist by training, his interest in immigration was spurred by his concern over population growth — there were too many people competing for too few resources. The solution, in Tanton’s mind, was to restrict immigration by overturning the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, a law that eliminated the racist quota system that had virtually excluded everyone who wasn’t a white European from immigrating to the U.S.
In 1979, Tanton launched the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. He also founded the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA. The “big three,” as the groups are collectively known, went on to become the intellectual backbone of the nativist movement in the United States.
Tanton’s groups argued that unchecked immigration brought with it unemployment, high crime rates, and other social ills. Their ideas were, for many years, infrequently cited in the mainstream media, where they were considered on the fringe of the immigration debate. Though they are still not widely cited, there has been a noticeable increase in references to these groups since Trump’s rise to political power.
Image: Courtesy of Define American
“John Tanton walked in, eyes wide open, and embraced white nationalism as a motivating factor, injecting it into our immigration policy,” said Ahmad. In a bid to make more information about this controversial figure available, Ahmad set out in 2016 to win the release of Tanton’s files, which were to be released by the University of Michigan in 2035. A Michigan appellate court ruling in Ahmad’s favor in June, but the university is in the process of appealing the decision.
Ahmad said Tanton’s long view and network of groups allowed his message to spread far and wide. “It might have ended with him, but he was so influential in creating this entire framework,” he said. “He wasn’t thinking about policies for the next five years or 10 years; he was thinking 100 years. Fear of an ‘invasion,’ ‘Latin onslaught,’ ‘America being less white,’ appealed to — and is in a sick, symbiotic relationship with — bona fide white nationalists.”
The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda runs parallel to the agendas of the Tanton-linked groups. In 2016, Trump cited a study by the Center of Immigration Studies in a campaign ad that fearmongered about immigrants, accusing them of “collecting Social Security benefits, skipping the line.”
That influence has moved into the halls of power with Trump. A number of individuals formerly employed by groups in the Tanton network now work on immigration at Trump’s Department of Homeland Security. Julie Kirchner, who was the executive director of FAIR from 2007 to 2015, is the ombudsperson of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at DHS. Robert Law, who was the government relations director at FAIR from 2013 to 2017, has been a senior policy adviser at USCIS since October 2017. Elizabeth Jacobs, another senior adviser at USCIS, was also a lobbyist for FAIR, where she advocated for ending Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans and reducing refugee admissions. Jon Feere, who was a legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, joined U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017 as a policy adviser.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, has leveraged the revolving door between the Tanton organizations to try to get easy access to information. “Do you know if an actual person I can call at E-Verify for statistics (or maybe in your shop)?” Krikorian wrote to Law, the USCIS adviser, in December 2017, according to a record obtained by American Oversight through a public records request. “I’m trying to go through public affairs, but that may take a while and there’s some problems with the numbers at the E-Verify site, and a PR person isn’t going to know what I’m talking about.”
With the ascent of a fellow traveler into the White House and, with him, a gaggle of former employees from Tanton-linked groups into key policymaking positions, the groups have increasingly been cited as sources in mainstream immigration coverage. These citations are almost always in neutral terms that do not provide context about the groups’ agendas.
Once the researchers working on the Define American report identified instances in which the Center for Immigration Studies, FAIR, and NumbersUSA were cited, two coders manually studied the data to determine whether any context was provided, according to Ethan Zuckerman, a report author and the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media.
“They looked at each of the mentions, and they looked to see if things were mentioned in any critical terms,” Zuckerman explained. “The theory behind that is that this group of think tanks is a pretty heavily agendaed group of organizations — groups that have been really sort of leading the anti-immigrant movement — and there’s a great deal of a relationship between them. And they’re far from a neutral provider of research and data. So, what we were looking for in that was, was there a caveat that says, you know, ‘This center, which has a track record of advocating against immigration’ or ‘This center, which takes a strong stand against immigration’?” Zuckerman added, “When we’re saying that we don’t find that, that means they’re simply just being cited as a source.”
Mainstreaming Hatemongers’ Words
The Washington Post consistently used what the Define American researchers considered denigrating language more frequently than the other outlets; along with the New York Times, it had a higher percentage of stories with degrading terms as compared to a sample collection of 227 national news sources, as well as collections of news sources that lean left or center-left. Right and center-right sources consistently used denigrating language more frequently than other news outlets.
Despite a 56 percent increase in the use of denigrating terms in the pages of the Los Angeles Times over the four-year period, it had the lowest overall percentage of stories that included such language — even though it had the highest overall increase in immigration coverage.
Zuckerman said the Los Angeles Times stands out as a newsroom that appears to have made a deliberate decision to avoid normalizing language that dehumanizes immigrants.
“They’ve made some very conscious newsroom choices that they don’t want to normalize this language, even by putting it in quotes.”
“We see evidence from our study of the LA Times that they handled it differently,” Zuckerman said. “They’ve been very reluctant to use that denigrating language, and in fact, even after it ticked up for a bit, they’ve brought it back. What that indicates to me is that they’ve made some very conscious newsroom choices that they don’t want to normalize this language, even by putting it in quotes.” He added, “We find that really interesting because that creates clearly an alternative way to handle this language.”
The Los Angeles Times’s style guide allows for the use of “illegal immigration” to describe entry or residence into a country in violation of the law, but it encourages writers to avoid “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented immigrant,” unless it appears in a direct quote. “We know that migration and immigrant communities are essential parts of day-to-day life in Los Angeles and across our region, and we have worked diligently to expand our coverage in recent years,” the paper’s managing editor, Scott Kraft, said in a statement to The Intercept. “Our language and style guidelines for immigration-related topics are fairly strict. They’re based on the expertise of our staff and are intended to help reflect our diverse city.”
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the New York Times shared the paper’s stylebook entry for “immigration status,” which notes that “the language of the immigration debate is often politically charged” and cautions reporters to “be as specific as possible in describing immigration situations.”
Illegal immigrant remains accurate and acceptable, but be aware that some people view it as loaded or offensive. (Illegal immigration, because it describes the issue rather than an individual, is less likely to be seen as troubling.) Undocumented, the term preferred by many immigrants and their advocates, is also acceptable, though using that term exclusively may be seen as one-sided. Unauthorized is also accurate and may be perceived as more neutral than other descriptions.
Consider other alternatives whenever possible to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions: who crossed the border illegally; who overstayed a visa; who is not authorized to work in the United States.
Take particular care in describing people whose immigration status is complex or subject to change — for example, young people brought to this country as children, many of whom received temporary reprieves from deportation under federal policies adopted in 2012. The common colloquial term Dreamers may be used sparingly for this group, but avoid making it the routine description, which may seem tendentious.
Do not use illegal as a noun, and avoid the sinister-sounding alien.
USA Today did not respond to a request for comment. The Washington Post did not provide a comment in time for publication.
The Define American report authors posit that U.S. newsrooms face a distinct challenge when reporting on immigration in the age of Trump. “Do they adopt terms used by public figures and use them throughout their coverage?” the report asks. “Do they acknowledge denigrating terminology but parrot the language, separating themselves by using quotation marks to make clear they do not endorse the framing? Or do they resist denigrating language by simply avoiding it, choosing instead to omit or rephrase?”
At present, news outlets are often choosing the middle path. The Define American researchers suggest that journalists think more deliberately about the language of immigration reporting. They offer five basic ethical standards of reporting, including focusing on the people most impacted by policy prescriptions, setting high standards for when it’s necessary to quote newsmakers using denigrating terms, not quoting nativist groups without context about their history and ties to the government, continuing to work toward diversifying newsrooms, and establishing these standards in public style guides.
“This study creates an important opportunity for self-reflection by major news organizations in deciding whether to purge denigrating phraseology in their style guidelines,” Peter Perl, the former assistant managing editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the newspaper’s guidelines, said in a written statement. The use of big data gives journalists “an unprecedented insight into the impact of their language choices and their selection of information sources,” added Perl, who sits on the board of Define American. “We hope they will use this chance to provide a fairer, more balanced presentation of the U.S. immigration debate to better serve their millions of readers worldwide.”