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What The Difference Is Between Refugees And Asylum Seekers


Attorney General Jeff Sessions is in San Diego today to talk about immigration enforcement. Sessions made this trip about a week after a caravan of Central American migrants arrived at the U.S. border. He had added staff to handle the cases of the men, women and children who'd made the month-long trip through Mexico.

Now at this point, more than 150 have been let into the U.S. for processing. To hear more about what that means and what they now face, we're going to speak with Heidi Boas. She's an immigration lawyer with Wilkes Legal. Before that, she was a senior asylum officer for the U.S. government. Welcome to the studio.

HEIDI BOAS: Thank you.

CORNISH: To even be let into the U.S. for processing, what has to be established at the border?

BOAS: Well, when people present themselves at the border asking for protection, or when they are detained, they will be asked a series of required questions, including whether they have a fear of returning to their country. And if they say that they do, then they are required to undergo what's called a credible fear interview, and that's conducted by an asylum officer.

CORNISH: You're making it sound very perfunctory, but it sounds kind of high-stakes, right? I mean, this is their first interaction with the U.S.

BOAS: It is high-stakes because it is their opportunity to have access to the immigration court system or not. But if the asylum officer finds that the applicant does not have a credible fear, the applicant can request to have that determination reviewed by an immigration judge. So there is a second level of review.

CORNISH: Now this 1980 law, the Refugee Act of 1980, says that people can seek asylum if they face the threat of persecution in their home countries or if there is, quote, "a well-founded fear of persecution." And I understand there's a lot of opinions about what the source of that persecution can be, right? Like, what kind of counts in that definition? Is it gang violence? Is it domestic abuse? How do you navigate this?

BOAS: Well, there are five grounds for receiving asylum. And that is race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. And it's the particular social group category that is more defined by immigration courts in particular decisions that judges make.

So for example, women fleeing domestic violence, if they can show that they were in a relationship that they were unable to leave, and the government would not protect them, they can qualify under the particular social group category. But it is very fact-specific, and not every person who tries to make a social group argument is going to be successful.

CORNISH: Can you give us an example of something we all think, well, that seems kind of valid, but it doesn't really wash when they get in the room with an asylum officer?

BOAS: Well, there's people who are applying for asylum on one of those five grounds, but then they're not found to be credible. And so then they wouldn't be granted asylum. So there is a very specific focus on credibility in determining whether or not the applicant is telling the truth because we want to keep, you know, the benefit for those who qualify and not grant it to everyone who's seeking relief.

CORNISH: And in the moment, how do you do that?

BOAS: Well, asylum officers receive a lot of training on credibility determination. So they are looking at consistency. So for example, an applicant is supposed to submit a personal statement with their asylum application. And then during the interview, they're also giving testimony. But if there's facts that aren't consistent between the statement and the testimony, that can sometimes be an indication of a credibility issue, as well as if they're unable to give detail that they should be able to give.

So for example, if someone is a member of a political party, if you ask them about the beliefs of that political party or activities that they participated in as a member, they should be able to give you detail about that. And if they can't, that might be an indication that they're not credible, as well as any indications that their documents they're presenting might have been altered. Those are some of the things that asylum officers look out for.

CORNISH: Heidi Boas is an immigration attorney with Wilkes Legal. Thank you for speaking with us.

BOAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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