McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Department of Homeland Security is making changes to a year-long program that has allowed asylum officers from U.S. Citizenship Immigration Services to screen migrants who were already put in expedited removal proceedings to help reduce immigration case backlogs.

In a statement to Border Report on Thursday, DHS officials said they are suspending the asylum officer rule to new migrant referrals from Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), but will continue the program for asylum-seekers who are already in the system.

This is not the expedited migrant processing pilot program, which began on the Southwest border this week and allows USCIS officers to administer credible fear interviews in CBP facilities, DHS officials told Border Report.

The department has been making several policy changes as it prepares for upwards of 13,000 migrants per day at the U.S.-Mexico border when Title 42 lifts on May 11. That’s the public health order put in place in March 2020 that has prevented migrants from claiming asylum at the border during the coronavirus pandemic.

“In light of ongoing border-related planning and to ensure operational readiness ahead of the lifting of the Title 42 public health order, ICE and CBP will temporarily pause new referrals of potential Asylum Merits Interview (AMI) credible fear cases and USCIS will temporarily pause scheduling any new AMIs. Referrals are anticipated to continue in the near future. In the interim, any noncitizens who have already been scheduled for AMIs with USCIS will continue through that process,” a DHS spokesperson said.

The asylum officer rule was announced in March 2022 and authorized asylum officers from USCIS to screen asylum-seekers who have already passed credible fear interviews. During this subsequent interview screening, asylum officers would elicit information regarding asylum claims and rule whether they felt the person should be allowed to stay in the United States, or be removed to their home countries. This could include asylum-seekers who were put in the Alternatives to Detention program and have been allowed to reside in the United States as their immigration cases play out in U.S. courts.

Prior to this program, only U.S. immigration judges, hired through the Executive Office for Immigration Review, could decide asylum cases.

In announcing this program in 2022, Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas touted it as a way to help to reduce the court backlog and revitalize the system for handling asylum claims.

“We are building a more functional and sensible asylum system to ensure that individuals who are eligible will receive protection more swiftly, while those who are not eligible will be rapidly removed. We will process claims for asylum or other humanitarian protection in a timely and efficient manner while ensuring due process,” Mayorkas said.

The rule was announced jointly with Attorney General Merrick Garland, who said, “It will help reduce the burden on our immigration courts, protect the rights of those fleeing persecution and violence, and enable immigration judges to issue removal orders when appropriate.”

There are over 2.1 million backlogged immigration cases currently, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University, which tracks all U.S. cases.

But expedited processing has come under fire from immigrant advocacy groups who worry that asylum-seekers are being rushed through the asylum process and not having their cases fully vetted.

So far in Fiscal Year 2023, nearly 90,000 immigrants have been ordered deported, that’s 40% of completed cases, TRAC reports.

(TRAC Graphic)

Those concerns are top of mind as the new expedited migrant processing pilot program is being rolled out this week at CBP processing facilities along the Southwest border. Under this new pilot program, USCIS officers are conducting initial credible fear screenings at CBP facilities where migrants are being fingerprinted and their information taken after they illegally cross into the United States.

Credible fear interviews are essential for determining whether a migrant has a legitimate asylum claim, or will be expelled. Reasons for claiming asylum include fear of torture, gangs, political persecution or police corruption in home countries. Coming to America for economic gains is not a qualifying reason for claiming asylum.