Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, speaks during a news conference in April.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, speaks during a news conference in April. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Democratic Lawmakers Protest Border Patrol Asylum Policies

Cummings, Lofgren ask DHS secretary and inspector general for training documents.

Customs and Border Protection under the Trump administration may be violating U.S. and international law by turning away certain asylum seekers, according to two Democrats on the House Oversight panel and the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.

Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., on Tuesday wrote to acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and DHS Inspector General John Roth saying they are launching an investigation of reports in recent months of Border Patrol agents “illegally turning away asylum seekers fleeing from torture and war atrocities to the United States as their last beacon of hope.”

They cited the Immigration and Nationality Act (amended in 1965) and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees for requirements that CBP offer official interviews to all individuals “who are physically present or arrive in the United States with ‘an intention to apply for asylum.’” The international protocol protects those seeking asylum “on the grounds that they are being persecuted ‘for their race, religion, nationality,’ as well as for their political opinions and other factors.”

As evidence, the lawmakers relied on a May report from the nonprofit Human Rights First. It details 125 cases of people and families apparently wrongfully denied access to U.S. asylum procedures at various points of entry. In one case, CBP agents told asylum seekers that “Trump says we don’t have to let you in” and that “you can’t just show up here,” the report said.

Cummings and Lofgren asked IG John Roth to investigate the allegations, and asked DHS to supply information such as how many allegations of illegal rejections of asylum seekers the agency has received since November; how many complaints have been investigated; how many related disciplinary actions have been taken; and what kind of training materials CBP has created on implementing asylum law. Lawmakers also want copies of those materials.

The agency is also the subject of class-action litigation, in which asylum-seeking plaintiffs say they were turned away at one of San Diego’s ports of entry, according to the San Diego Tribune. Backed by the American Immigration Council and the Center for Constitutional Rights, the plaintiffs claim officials lied to asylum seekers and prevented some from formally applying for asylum.

A DHS spokesman told Government Executive CBP could not comment on the lawsuit, but said it has not changed any policies affecting asylum procedures. "CBP’s procedures are based on international law and are focused on protecting vulnerable and persecuted persons," the agency said in a statement. "If a CBP officer or agent encounters a U.S.-bound migrant at or between ports of entry, without legal papers, and the person expresses fear of being returned to his/her home country, our officers process them for an interview with an asylum officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. CBP officers do not determine or evaluate the validity of the fear expressed. As an agency, CBP adheres to law and policy on processing asylum claims and does not tolerate abuse of these policies."