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Memos Show Asylum Officers Were Given Short Notice Before New Rule Went Into Effect


There's been a huge change at the U.S. southern border, a new rule that takes effect today - most migrants may no longer seek asylum. Now, the asylum officers charged with implementing this new rule didn't get much more notice of the change than the rest of us. According to documents obtained by the LA Times, the officers were given guidance on how to carry out the policy just hours before it was set to take effect. Molly O'Toole reported this story for the LA Times. She's in our studios now. Welcome.

MOLLY O'TOOLE: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So start with the rule, which was announced yesterday. What does it do, and what are the exceptions?

O'TOOLE: Broadly speaking, the rule says that any migrant who passed through another country and did not claim asylum there before arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border to try and claim asylum in the United States, they would be rendered ineligible to do so. It essentially wipes out almost any migrant who tries to make an asylum claim in the United States at the U.S. southern land border. And there are very few exceptions, and they're extremely narrow. One is that you would have to prove that you're a victim of a severe trafficking incident. Another - and this is my favorite - is that you could have only transited through the handful of countries around the world that are not signatories to the international conventions on refugees or the international conventions against torture. So if you somehow managed to directly come from North Korea or Myanmar, you might potentially still be eligible for asylum in in the United States.

KELLY: So, I mean, essentially, this ends the practice of being able to apply for asylum at the U.S. southern border. What is the Trump administration's stated goal with this?

O'TOOLE: From the very beginning, the Trump administration has said that they wanted to target illegal immigration, but many of the policies have actually targeted legal immigration, and asylum is that category. The backlog is immense. I believe it's about 900,000 immigration cases, and it takes about two years. And asylum applications have dramatically gone up in the United States. And so the goal here essentially is to end asylum.

KELLY: Describe the documents that you got hold of that are providing guidance to the U.S. officers at the border now charged with carrying out this new rule.

O'TOOLE: Right. One of the biggest questions yesterday is this rule publishes in the Federal Register at 9 in the morning. There's a joint statement from Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. Other than that, there was no insight, no guidance that we were aware of, and from the sources that we were talking to, the people who were charged with implementing this policy, as to how the heck they were going to be implementing it as of today when it took effect. So very late last night, essentially, all personnel in the asylum office at USCIS, which is the agency under Homeland Security that's charged with administering immigration benefits, the legal immigration system asylum, they received this guidance. It's a 21-page PowerPoint. There were just about a half a dozen supporting documents in this really extensive guidance, very jargony language, but it was supposed to be telling them how to implement this policy that was going to take effect today.

KELLY: There was at least one senior official whose name came up in these documents, a guy named John Lafferty, who was expressing concern at the lack of training and preparation for his officers. Who is he, and what was his concern?

O'TOOLE: So John Lafferty is the head of the division, essentially, that handles asylum refugees, international operations for USCIS. Clearly, given the extent of the guidance, there were people in the upper levels of the administration who had planned for this, but the people on the ground whom were charged with implementing it, and Lafferty himself it seemed to indicate, had not been given that kind of - they hadn't been involved in the planning or hadn't been given that kind of notice.

KELLY: Molly O'Toole covers immigration and security for the LA Times. Thanks so much for coming in.

O'TOOLE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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