The Department of Homeland Security’s legal immigration agency is ordering hundreds of employees to drop their regular duties and shift to border detail, where they will assist in the catch-and-release of the wave of illegal immigrants expected to come into the U.S. this month.
People performing anti-terrorism work or helping reunite separated families have been conscripted, as have officers who process regular applications from legal immigrants. They were ordered to begin a seven-day training course this week and be ready for a 60-day deployment to help with the migrant surge.
Employees were angry and unleashed their fury on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials Friday in a briefing that The Washington Times monitored.
John Lafferty, the head of USCIS’s asylum division who led the briefing, acknowledged that the agency doesn’t have the staff to handle the border surge and do all its other work.
“We’re going to have to take a hit on other priorities in order to do this, but the department has made very clear that this is a priority,” Mr. Lafferty said. “The administration, the White House, has made clear this is a priority.”
Mr. Lafferty said he can send 600 to 700 asylum officers to border duty but it will take 1,100 to 1,200 to be ready for the department’s anticipated surge.
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Hundreds of USCIS employees have been ordered to train to help starting this week.
Recruits say they come from other high-priority jobs, including anti-terrorism duties and working on President Biden’s task force to reunite children separated from their families during the last administration.
Mr. Lafferty said USCIS’s other work will have to slow down.
“Some other things that we all consider very high profile or priority are going to have to be done perhaps at a slower rate,” he said. “Fewer cases being done, taking a little longer, to meet the ask that has come to us.”
Mr. Lafferty originally asked for volunteers, but too few people came forward. Border duty was then made mandatory — or, as one employee put it, they were “voluntold.”
Several employees challenged the agency’s authority to make the shift.
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“Where is the authority for the agency to conscript us found? I’d like to read it with my own two eyes,” one said in a message posted to the virtual briefing’s chat function.
Another expressed moral qualms.
“I strongly believe that credible fear applicants are being trafficked into the United States to work off their debt to their smugglers. Some of them are being trafficked as sex slaves,” that employee said. “There is a reason why I left Asylum, and that is one of the reasons. That is, I don’t want to work as a middleman for drug cartels and sex traffickers.”
That refers to smugglers who charge migrants $10,000 or more to be shepherded to the border. Those who can’t pay upfront must work off their debts, sometimes by selling sex.
The officer continued: “I honestly believe the credible fear program is doing more harm than good to the applicants. Can I please not participate if I chose to?”
Homeland Security didn’t respond to multiple inquiries for this report. USCIS said it is still trying to assess the impact of diverting the workers.
“Nearly 480 USCIS employees with relevant experience have been selected to enroll in a credible fear interview training exercise this week to better prepare for increased staffing and resource requirements, strengthen the agency’s operational readiness, and support upcoming processing efforts at the southern border,” the agency said in a statement to The Washington Times.
The agency said employees are being taken “from across the agency” and not just from the ranks of officers.
Rosemary Jenks, vice president at NumbersUSA, a group that argues for stricter immigration controls, said the agency’s scrambles belie Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ claim that he has had a plan in place for months to deal with the end of Title 42. The pandemic-era law allowed migrants to be returned for public health reasons.
“The clown show demonstrated by this briefing is an abuse of USCIS employees,” she said. “DHS has known for months when Title 42 would end, so this last-minute, panicked scramble is unconscionable and merits serious investigation by Congress.”
Roughly 6,000 unauthorized migrants poured across the southern border each day in March — the latest month for which Homeland Security has released data. Officials think that number could double in two weeks when the Title 42 power expires.
Rather than derail the flow, the Biden administration has put its effort into trying to manage it.
The USCIS employees will be ordered to undergo an initial screening of new arrivals who claim to fear being sent back home. That is the first step on the path to claiming asylum.
The initial screening is known as a “credible fear interview.”
Those who pass are generally released into the U.S. to wait for their asylum cases to be heard. That process can take many years, and most end up losing their cases. By then, however, they will have put down roots in the U.S. and become all but impossible to send home.
That foothold is the incentive analysts point to as the driving force behind the record border chaos under the Biden administration.
Friday’s call revealed startling details about how the administration plans to handle the surge.
For one thing, the USCIS employees won’t be conducting the “credible fear” interviews face-to-face.
Mr. Lafferty said migrants will be placed in phone booths in a border facility where they will be interviewed via phone.
USCIS employees told The Washington Times that a face-to-face interview is critical for judging an applicant’s credibility.
Mr. Lafferty said the phone-booth approach was an accommodation to the urgency of the situation.
If the asylum office faced a normal crunch, it would borrow officers from the refugee section, which is also part of the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate. Refugee and asylum petitions are similar but for the location of the application. Refugees apply for protection from outside the U.S., while asylum-seekers are already on U.S. soil.
Mr. Lafferty said the Biden administration plans to expand refugee openings for would-be border migrants, so the refugee division also will be swamped.
That leaves Mr. Lafferty with 600 to 700 asylum officers he can send to border duty on a given day. USCIS thinks he will need as many as 1,200, so the additional people must be conscripted from other divisions within the agency.
“There’s a chance that we would on any given day be putting up to 1,100 to 1,200 people on phones conducting credible fear screenings in order to meet the numbers that are being asked of us,” he told employees.
USCIS counts roughly 19,000 employees.
One person in the Q&A said a credible fear screening takes roughly two hours, so four could be completed in a normal workday. With 1,200 people doing the screenings, that works out to nearly 5,000 screenings a day.
Mr. Lafferty said employees may be ordered to work overtime, including on weekends.
He said the projections were based on Homeland Security’s anticipated numbers. He said USCIS wants to be prepared for a worst-case scenario, but the numbers may not be so bad and fewer people will be needed.
Employees in Friday’s briefing objected to being forced to serve.
“I was abused, threatened, harassed and humiliated by the RAIO component I worked for, in addition to being told I was a poor officer. I was continually told to work off the clock without pay. I have no desire to being subject to further abuse. Why am I being selected for this?” one employee demanded.
Another said: “Are you planning disciplinary action against those who refuse to participate?”
Mr. Lafferty told the employees that they didn’t have a choice and were at the mercy of the decisions made by the agency’s human capital and training office.
“The main point here is HCT does have the authority to assign work to the staff,” he said.
Michael Knowles, a USCIS employee who leads the labor union representing USCIS officers, was part of Friday’s briefing and posted repeated messages asking employees with concerns to contact him.
He told The Washington Times that the union has registered its concerns about the diversion of employees to handle border cases.
As for employees who object to the work on moral grounds, Mr. Knowles said they could face discipline if they refuse to be reassigned.
“At the end of the day, however, each employee must make choices that best reflect their individual consciences and interests,” he said. “We remain concerned that many employees may simply elect to quietly leave the program and seek employment elsewhere within USCIS or other federal agencies.”
Mr. Lafferty didn’t respond to email inquiries for this report.
He has had several tumultuous years at USCIS, having been ousted as head of the asylum office by the Trump administration in 2019 after sending an email criticizing policy changes.
“We are once again being asked to adapt and to do so with very little time to train and prepare,” he said in the 2019 email, reported by BuzzFeed.
The Biden administration put him back into the asylum job, and now he finds himself overseeing a last-minute upheaval.
Several employees at Friday’s briefing complained about the short notice. They were told only on April 25 that they were being ordered to clear their schedules for the seven days of training starting May 1.
Then came Friday’s call.
USICS says it will have final decisions on who gets conscripted for the 60-day border duty by May 12. That’s a day after the Title 42 power expires.
Mr. Lafferty said the announcements had to wait on Mr. Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who revealed the administration’s plans for handling the surge on Thursday.
“I wish we’d been able to do this earlier,” Mr. Lafferty said in the Friday briefing. “It really felt like the announcement yesterday was something that had to happen.”
The last-minute upheaval will be hard, employees said. One said they are a single parent of two children and wondered how they could afford child care to cover the overtime they may be ordered to work.
Another said she worked a flexible schedule and wondered whether that would be respected.
“If not, what options are available to us for backup family care?” she prodded.
USCIS originally sought volunteers for border duty but didn’t get enough willing workers, so it ordered others to be prepared.
Mr. Lafferty said the agency has selected people who have gone through asylum or refugee training in the past. That’s a requirement under the law for anyone to be able to conduct a credible fear screening.
Yet they seem to have cast the net too wide.
“I cannot and do not want to participate in the detail. I declined to volunteer on purpose. How can I be sure that this is respected by USCIS?” one employee asked.
Another said they used to work in the asylum and refugee office but hated it and took a pay cut to leave. They asked whether the agency will pay them more to return to the job.
Mr. Lafferty downplayed those hopes. He said even relatively lower-level employees can do credible fear screenings, so the work itself is not necessarily highly paid.
USCIS is funded mostly by fees paid by immigrants or businesses seeking to bring in foreign workers.
Asylum applications are fee-free. That means the cost of the massive new workload will either have to be covered by taxpayers or else absorbed by the agency’s other applicants — generally legal immigrants, whose cases will be delayed by the shift in workers.
“The fact that legal immigrants’ fees will be used to pay for catch-and-release of illegal aliens is offensive,” Ms. Jenks said.
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