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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

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

2 hours ago - World

Australian PM pledges $700M for climate change-threatened Great Barrier reef

A green sea turtle is flourishing among the corals at Lady Elliot island in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Friday a AU$1 billion ($703 million) investment plan for the Great Barrier Reef.

Why it matters: The nine-year plan for projects including water quality improvement, reef conservation and supporting some 64,000 tourism jobs comes months ahead of this year's federal election. It has been criticized by scientists and environmental groups for failing to tackle climate change.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.