Daily Dispatch 9/6/2019: Amateur Hour in D.C.

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Daily Dispatch

September 6, 2019


Unconfirmed, acting head of USCIS Ken Cuccinelli. Image/The Hill

James Fallow has an interesting thought piece in the Atlantic this week about what life might look like if the (U.S.) American empire were to collapse. The answer is that things might come out okay. Indeed, the collapse of the western Roman Empire set in motion a period of localized innovation that established the foundation of the modern age. The Dark Ages were not really so bad.

I’m still pondering all of that. However, a passage from the article really stood out to me, and though not about immigration policy or criminal justice issues specifically, it could be:

At the national level, “policy work is increasingly being done by people with no training in it, and who don’t care about it, because they’re drawn into national politics purely as culture warriors,” I was told by Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, who worked as a national-security official for both Presidents Bush. “There’s a fiction that mass politics is about policy.” The reality, he said, is that national-level politics has become an exercise in cultural signaling—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on”—rather than about actual governance.

Today we look at a couple of examples of the impact of turning immigration policy over to people with no experience and no interest in actually governing. Has governing become the practice of virtue signaling to a political base rather than problem solving? It sure seems that way.

More Turnover at USCIS

The head of the asylum office at U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services, John Lafferty, was forced out – demoted to another post – by acting head of USCIS Ken Cuccinelli this week. Lafferty oversaw the work of 500 asylum officers. According to the Washington Post, Lafferty’s demotion was done under pressure from Stephen Miller, who is the chief architect of Trump’s hardline immigration policies.  

For years, Miller and others in the administration have argued the officers who screen migrants seeking safe refuge are often too sympathetic during initial screening interviews and too credulous while evaluating their stories of persecution and hardship. Tightening the asylum process has been a priority for the White House, which argues the humanitarian program is being abused by a flood of Central American migrants filing meritless claims to gain easy entry to the United States.

A pilot program launched this year with Miller’s backing has trained Border Patrol agents to conduct screening interviews in place of asylum officers, with the assumption that they will take a more skeptical and adversarial approach.

Earlier this year the union that represents asylum officers sued in federal court to block the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

Lafferty’s replacement will be Andrew Davidson who currently runs the USCIS’ fraud detection unit. Davidson is also a career officer, but the symbolism of this transfer tells us much about Trump’s view of the asylum process. 

Another Look at Remain in Mexico

(Video from Washington Post. To view, click on the post link to our website.)

Interview with Human Rights First Attorney

The Atlantic ran an interview with immigration attorney Hardy Vieux who directs the legal team at Human Rights First. The interview is framed around the impact of threatened changes to the Flores Settlement Agreement – which Trump has sought to sideline through an executive order that would in effect replace Flores. The executive order goes into effect mid-October if the courts agree. There are also 19 states seeking to block the rule changes in various lawsuits. 

The interview provides an interesting look at what attorneys are telling clients and the challenges they face at the moment. You can read the full interview here. A particularly important theme throughout:

I would certainly make the argument that there is a lot to be said for comprehensive immigration reform. But what the Trump administration is doing is, one, legislating by fiat. They’re arrogating onto themselves rights that Congress did not give them. And, second, the rule of law be damned. A lot of the policies that we’re seeing from this administration have nothing to do with respecting people’s rights. It’s simply seeking to marginalize and demonize. And it’s marginalizing and demonizing in a way that we think is really destructive to the norms that we’ve respected in this country, which is to embrace those who are fleeing something far worse in their homeland, and to give them a process by which they could lawfully make their case and stay here.

ICE’s main tool for tracking people in detention doesn’t really work

ICE is currently detaining 54,744 people as of August 24. This is just a few hundred less than the record number of detentions set two weeks before when ICE hit 55,000 detainees for the first time. When people are incarcerated by ICE, it can be extremely difficult for family, friends, and even attorneys to find them, and then keep track of them. ICE is notorious for moving people around and failing to inform anyone on the outside what has happened. Given the number of people incarcerated by ICE, failing to keep track of their movement in custody is a crisis of enormous proportion.

The primary way to track someone in ICE custody is the agency’s Online Detainee Locator System. Only it doesn’t work…at least not well. The Sun Foundation published a report this week based on analysis of the Detainee Locator System. What they found is not heartening. 

The Online Detainee Locator System (ODLS), run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is a vital lifeline for detained immigrants and their families. When it functions well, it’s often the best way to find where immigrants detained for immigration matters — those facing deportation for various violations or challenging decisions by immigration authorities — are being held. But the system is slow to update, and its basic structure leaves it vulnerable to data entry mishaps and other technical glitches, attorneys and others who spoke with the Web Integrity Project (WIP) say.

“Sometimes the issue is that the locator just won’t load, and I can’t even input any information to find someone,” says Leah Barr, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, recounting a common experience with the locator. “And sometimes people aren’t showing up in the locator who actually are in custody. Everything loads, and it tells me ‘no results found.’”

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