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Expand chart
Data: USCIS, DOJ, RPC; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

The Trump administration is making it harder for immigrants fleeing violence, persecution and trafficking to stay in the U.S., in the name of getting tough on fraud.

The big picture: There are always cases of fraud in the immigration system, and not everyone who applies for asylum or the T visa, which is for victims of human trafficking, is eligible. But since Trump took office, visa denial rates for asylum and T visas have skyrocketed while the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. has plummeted.

What's new: On Wednesday, a federal judge blocked a new Trump policy that would deny asylum to Central Americans who don't first apply for protection in Mexico or another country as they head north.

  • Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), sent an email last month suggesting that asylum officers should be tougher in their initial screenings of asylum seekers, Buzzfeed reported.
  • The denial rate for the human trafficking T visa was 45% for the first two quarters of this fiscal year — an increase from 19% in FY 2016, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
  • The administration has discussed cutting the number of refugee admissions to nearly zero, Politico and CNN reported last week.

The backstory: The law requires asylum seekers to prove they face persecution at home “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

  • Claims of domestic abuse or gang violence no longer qualify after a decision by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year — one of the biggest factors in the increased denial rates, former USCIS director Leon Rodriguez told Axios.

Requests for more evidence of sex or labor trafficking have increased for immigrants applying for a T visa, said Evangeline Chan, an immigration attorney who also works with Safe Horizon, a nonprofit that cares for victims of crime and abuse.

  • USCIS spokesperson Jessica Collins told Axios that the T visa criteria and adjudication process has not changed, nor has the agency's "support for victims of human trafficking." 
  • There have also been more wrongful denials of asylum and T visas, which Chan said she attributes to overburdened courts and pressure from the administration for judges to meet case quotas. "There are a lot of decisions being rushed," she said.
  • The Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts, told Axios its judges make decisions on a "case-by-case basis," and that it "takes seriously any claims of unjustified and significant anomalies in immigration judge decision-making."

The refugee cap has been cut three times during the Trump administration, and for the first time, Canada took in more refugees than the U.S. Meanwhile, the number of forcibly displaced people in the world is higher than at any other point since World War II, according to the UN. That number has been growing.

There's just been heightened scrutiny on all the immigration applications — especially on the humanitarian-based visas.
— Evangeline Chan

The other side: Advocates for cutting immigration, such as the Center for Immigration Studies, argue that the higher denial rates are due, at least in part, to a rise in asylum-seekers who do not qualify. But asylum claims are protected from disclosure, so there’s no way to know for sure, said Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge and fellow at the center.

  • "The reality is that our asylum system is being abused by those seeking economic opportunity, not those fleeing persecution, exacerbating crisis after crisis at our Southern border and keeping those who truly need asylum at the back of the line," said Collins of USCIS.
  • Those who defend refugee cuts, including Jared Kushner, say it's more effective and cost-efficient to send money to countries already hosting refugees.

Reality check: The Trump administration has taken numerous steps to curtail asylum seekers, including attempting to block migrants who illegally cross the border from asylum and forcing some asylum seekers to await a case decision in Mexico. It has also cut or threatened to cut funding for humanitarian aid and refugee programs.

The bottom line: "You can always reverse engineer intellectual justifications for what you're doing," Rodriguez said. "But I think it's really that political motivation that's behind all of this."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Exclusive: White House meeting with members of Problem Solvers Caucus

Members of the Problem Solvers Caucus discuss the COVID-19 relief bill in December. Photo: Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Top White House officials will meet Wednesday with a bipartisan coalition of House lawmakers as the administration tries to enlist moderates to support the president's infrastructure proposal.

Why it matters: The meeting is something of an olive branch after President Biden's team courted groups of progressives to back the $2.2 trillion package.

2 hours ago - Health

The new vaccine threat is fear itself

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The FDA’s decision to pause the use of Johnson & Johnson's coronavirus vaccine has set off a chain reaction of fear — about the safety of the vaccine, and about whether the FDA is overreacting — that's causing unnecessary drama just as the vaccine effort is finally picking up speed.

The big picture: Throughout the pandemic, the public and the media, and sometimes even regulators, have struggled to keep risks in perspective — to acknowledge them without exaggerating them, and to avoid downplaying them because other people will exaggerate them.

Cryptocurrency giant Coinbase heads to Wall Street

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Coinbase, the country's largest cryptocurrency exchange, is expected to go public today at what could be a valuation north of $100 billion.

Why it matters: This gives crypto a Wall Street seal of legitimacy, after an early existence marred by ties to illicit goods.