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

Trump signs bill to prevent government shutdown

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel and President Trump arrives at the U.S. Capitol in March. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

President Trump signed a bill to extend current levels of government funding into the new fiscal year, White House spokesperson Judd Deere confirmed early Thursday.

Driving the news: The Senate on Tuesday passed the legislation to fund the federal government through Dec. 11, by a vote of 84-10.

Editor's note: This is a developing news story. Please check back for updates.

Updated 21 mins ago - Science

In photos: Deadly wildfires devastate California's wine country

The Shady Fire ravages a home as it approaches Santa Rosa in Napa County, California, on Sept. 28. The blaze is part of the massive Glass Fire Complex, which has razed over 51,620 acres at 2% containment. Photo: Samuel Corum/Agence France-Presse/AFP via Getty Images

More than 1700 firefighters are battling 26 major blazes across California, including in the heart of the wine country, where one mega-blaze claimed the lives of three people and forced thousands of others to evacuate this week.

The big picture: More than 8,100 wildfires have burned across a record 39 million-plus acres, killing 29 people and razing almost 7,900 structures in California this year, per Cal Fire. Just like the deadly blazes of 2017, the wine country has become a wildfires epicenter. Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma, and Shasta counties.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 12:30 a.m. ET: 33,880,896 — Total deaths: 1,012,964 — Total recoveries: 23,551,663Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 12:30 a.m. ET: 7,232,823 — Total deaths: 206,887 — Total recoveries: 2,840,688 — Total tests: 103,939,667Map.
  3. Education: School-aged children now make up 10% of all U.S COVID-19 cases.
  4. Health: Moderna says its coronavirus vaccine won't be ready until 2021
  5. Travel: CDC: 3,689 COVID-19 or coronavirus-like cases found on cruise ships in U.S. waters — Airlines begin mass layoffs while clinging to hope for federal aid
  6. Business: Real-time data show economy's rebound slowing but still going.
  7. Sports: Steelers-Titans NFL game delayed after coronavirus outbreak.