(Host) Refugee advocates in Vermont say they’re concerned about a decision to expand the ability of Border Patrol agents to deport aliens without a court hearing. Government officials say the new powers are an important security measure.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports.
(Zind) It’s the job of the U.S. Border Patrol to police those areas of the border that lie between the country’s official ports of entry. The stretch of border between upstate New York and Maine is one of the busiest along the U.S. Canadian frontier.
Typically people who are apprehended illegally crossing the border are sent before an immigration judge who decides whether they should be deported or granted asylum. Now the Department of Homeland Security has announced that Border Patrol agents will be given the power to make that decision.
Bill Strassberger is a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. Strassberger says the courts are backlogged, forcing authorities to release illegal immigrants in hopes they’ll return for a future court date – or hold them for long periods of time.
(Strassberger) “This has put a tremendous burden on the taxpayer as far as detaining these individual. In those cases where they cannot be detained, they’re released on a notice to appear and given a court date of when to come and we’ve seen about 90 percent never show up. If we do that then we’re almost facilitating illegal entry into the United States.”
(Zind) Strassberger says Border Patrol agents will be trained to interview asylum seekers to determine if their claims are valid.
Refugee advocates worry about giving Border Patrol agents the power to decide the status of someone who is seeking asylum from persecution in their home country. Patrick Giantonia is director of the Vermont Refugee Assistance Program. He says people who are fleeing persecution are often traumatized. They may be intimidated by a uniformed agent, unable to explain their situation clearly and unaware that the agent is the one making the decision on their asylum request.
Giantonio says it’s too early to tell what impact the new changes will have, but he’s concerned that blocking their access to the courts is one of a series of setbacks for asylum seekers.
(Giantonio) “The U.S. immigration court system is a vital component to that. We have an appeals process we have an appeal board – those are vital components to the systems of refugee protection in the United States and it’s what the U.S. has been committed to for so many years, and so we hate to see further erosions like this.”
(Zind) The Department of Homeland Security says the new policy will be phased in, beginning in areas of the Southwest where the flow of illegal immigrants is greatest.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.