An Asylum Officer Reflects on Complicity

-edited

Is struggling from inside really a thing?

My friend and former colleague Seth Freed Wessler has been interviewing workers at the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, trying to uncover how this Administration's hounding, expulsion and exclusion agenda works in the day-to-day, and how the people carrying them out are experiencing it. This interview with one anonymous asylum agent gives us valuable insight into how someone with good intentions struggles with the decision to stay or go: stay and be complicit, or go and remove one more possibility of getting a fair asylum hearing. Here's Wessler on what he learned:

After Trump entered the White House, asylum officers told me that their supervisors began to send asylum cases back with instructions to reconsider their decisions, cases they were sure they’d adjudicated correctly. "I could not bring myself to reverse it," one former asylum officer said. Refugee officers, meanwhile, saw their roles shrink after Trump’s travel ban went into effect in January 2017. One told me she thought regularly about a Syrian refugee whose case she had approved but who was not allowed to come to the US. 'I wonder now if she’s still alive,' the officer said. Others related that inside their field offices, a new level of suspicion has taken hold, a 'guilty until proven innocent' disposition toward asylum seekers and immigrants. Still, a number of workers told me, they are staying the course, to provide immigrants and refugees a fair chance to make their case, to make their lives in the US."

I realize that many racial justice and immigration activists don't want to hear from anyone inside this federal government. Critics of Francisco Cantu's book The Line Becomes a River, about his years as a Border Patrol agent, objected to "humanizing" the Border Patrol and sought to have his promotional readings cancelled. The book itself, many have noted, is precisely about how the Border Patrol dehumanizes immigrants, and how an agent becomes conditioned to accept that dehumanization and violence.

But how can we object to the humanization of anyone? These worker are, in fact, human. We can decry their motivations or their actions as inhumane, but we can't cast them as actually inhuman. Doing so gives these players in our national drama an out: if they aren't human, we don't have to expect consciousness, morality and humane action from them. It is precisely the fact that they ARE human that makes their actions, however compelled, so horrible -- or on occasion, so compassionate. Whether or not we sympathize with USCIS workers, understanding their actual experience is a critical part of crafting winning strategy and communicating well about these issues.

Holding onto their humanity is a struggle for some of these workers, though. Wessler's source said, "I want to be able to provide a touch of humanity. I want to be human. The process, it is not very human. And I want to be able to give these women and men a fair opportunity to have their story heard. Not all officers are the same and not all officers are going to give the people they interview a fair chance to tell their story."

I found this example of new practices especially terrible:

`OK, I’m going to tell you, in a very specific example: when the kids​ ​got separated from their parents. I am going to tell you about that. I was interviewing moms in detention who were separated from their children. Officials took their children away from them. All that​ ​they wanted from me was to know where their kids were. They would ask me, “Where are my children?" But I was told not to tell them where their kids were. I was told not to tell them. When I say I’m complicit, this is what I mean.All I wanted to do was give them information about where their children were. Think about this: I am sitting with a woman who has no idea what’s happening, who has been separated from her children. All she wanted was her kid. And all that I was allowed to share was a 1-800 number that ICE gave us, a 1-800 number for them to call. The 1-800 number was from some office, the document came from ICE, but I heard that it didn’t always work. This hateful, harmful agenda that the president and Sessions have created—being inside of that, it makes me feel complicit.'

Read the entire interview and see Hannah Barczyk's beautiful illustrations here.

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