In the latest in its ongoing monitoring of Trump administration alterations of agency website content, a transparency group found that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services removed 26 website documents of training material for its officers dealing with asylum seekers.
Analysts at the Web Integrity Project run by the Sunlight Foundation on Thursday released a report documenting that the agency that is part of the Homeland Security Department deleted 26 documents, which totaled several hundred pages. They were training materials for USCIS asylum officers, “offering detailed instructions on how the agency screens immigrants under U.S. law and international asylum agreements,” the group said.
A whole section titled “Asylum Officer Basic Training Course Lesson Modules,” which offered links to the training documents, was removed from the agency’s “Asylum Division Training Programs” page.
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The materials, mounted on the main USCIS website under the Obama administration in 2013, included a primer on international human rights law; a list of U.S. statutes and international agreements that established the framework for the asylum process; and a six-part series on interview techniques describing how to approach conversations with torture victims, working with interpreters and proper note taking, the Web Integrity Project analysts reported.
The documents are available only at an agency online archive not available from the current agency’s website.
The removals were executed early in Trump’s tenure, from March 2 to April 27, 2017, the group said. As is common, no notice to the public was given.
Trump’s immigration policy changes and anti-terrorism steps at a time of massive refugee movements from the Middle East and Central America have included capping refugees at 45,000, though far fewer are being admitted, according to news reports.
The administration’s asylum practices were criticized by Democrats last year for turning away too many at the Southern border, and by the Government Accountability Office for lacking coordination and communication with related agencies.
The transparency analysts—who generally avoid weighing in on policy debates--consulted immigration attorneys who said the removed materials on the mechanics of implementing asylum policy were not outdated or obsolete. “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, an attorney for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Neilson, told the group. “They give us a little sense of what to expect in some situations.”
On Thursday, a USCIS spokesman told Government Executive that “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 agency said the asylum materials had become outdated following a restructuring of training programs across three divisions begun under the previous administration. By April 2017, the lesson plans had been updated and, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, the older ones were moved from the primary website to an electronic reading room site.
A recent USCIS press release announcing an expansion of online services for people applying for naturalization quoted Director L. Francis Cissna saying: “USCIS is making the process of applying for immigration benefits more efficient, secure and convenient. We continue to add new forms that applicants can complete online.”
This story has been updated with response from USCIS.