A new report from the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project (WIP) has found that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services removed over two dozen PDFs for training asylum officers, which immigration attorneys say were helpful in preparing themselves and their clients for interviews, from its website. It’s part of a broader push by the Trump administration to make the asylum process more difficult.
The 26 deleted PDFs, which according to Sunlight “ran to several hundred pages,” included a guide to international human rights law, one on how to make a decision on asylum, one on gender-based claims for asylum, and a six-part series on the asylum interview process. From the report:
The materials were prepared for personnel charged with reviewing and vetting asylum claims under certain international agreements and provisions of U.S. law. An entire section titled “Asylum Officer Basic Training Course Lesson Modules,” which included links to the training documents, was removed from the “Asylum Division Training Programs” page. Although some related material can be found elsewhere on the USCIS domain, the agency did not announce the removals or create a comprehensive archive of the resources.
While some of the documents can be found in other USCIS training documents hosted on the website, Sunlight says, the group of documents had been on the site in an “easily accessible format” since at least 2013. Sunlight found that the documents were erased last year between March 2 and April 27, just a few months after Donald Trump took office.
As Sunlight noted in an accompanying blog post, the materials were an “invaluable resource” to immigration lawyers. “They give a good insight into how the asylum officers themselves are trained to interpret ambiguous areas of the law, and how asylum officers are trained to conduct interviews,” Victoria Neilson of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network told Sunlight. “They give us a little sense of what to expect in some situations.”
The changes actively reduce transparency, and make little sense until you consider the players involved. Attorney General Jeff Sessions hates the asylum process and thinks it’s being “gamed,” whatever that means. And as the Marshall Project reported last month, Sessions, whom Axios called an “honorable person” yesterday, is currently “leading a broad review to question whether domestic or sexual violence should ever be recognized as persecution that would justify protection in the United States.”
The Trump administration as a whole seems to be actively trying to sabotage people seeking asylum in the United States. As the Daily Beast reported in April, the USCIS was prioritizing interviews with people who most recently applied for asylum, ensuring they had the least amount of time to prepare. One immigration attorney told the website that USCIS was frequently losing his clients’ paperwork, while another added that the “government is now approaching these cases with a view of finding reasons to deny these cases.”
Last week, USCIS Director Lee Francis Cissna admitted that the vast majority of people on the so-called refugee caravan had passed “credible fear” tests to determine whether or not they would be persecuted if they were sent back to their home country. This being the Trump administration, he implored Congress to make those tests harder. And now, it’s been discovered that his office shut down access to vital information that can help asylum seekers and their attorneys in the process.
“Applying for asylum at the USCIS level is not an adversarial process. The government should not be the enemy of someone who is trying to access a benefit that it administers,” Neilson told Sunlight. “So it seems reasonable to me that they should make the criteria they use in adjudicating claims available to the public.”
Update, 12:50 p.m: A USCIS spokesperson emailed the following statement to Splinter:
Assertions that USCIS has removed or taken office training documents off line are factually inaccurate. USCIS makes these training materials available on the Web to ensure public access to lesson plans.
The WIP says that it reached out to USCIS “multiple times” requesting comment before their report went live, but as of yet has still not received a response from USCIS.
In an email yesterday, the WIP said that the moving of some of the training documents from a “prominent part” of the website without notice or explanation “serves to confuse users of these materials and makes it more difficult to find specific lesson modules that are buried in other documents, one of which is more than 2000 pages.”