Democratic lawmakers slam the lack of attorney access for asylum-seekers in Border Patrol custody

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Dozens of Democratic members of Congress asked the Biden administration Tuesday to end expedited screening of asylum-seekers in Border Patrol custody, calling it a “rushed practice” that has allowed little access to legal counsel.

As the administration prepared to launch speedy screenings at Border Patrol holding facilities this spring , authorities pledged access to counsel would be a key difference from a Trump-era version of the policy. So far, that promise appears unfulfilled.

A coterie of involved attorneys estimated that perhaps 100 migrants secured formal representation in the first three months of the policy, The Associated Press reported last month, and only hundreds more have received informal advice through one-time phone calls ahead of the expedited screenings. That represents a mere fraction of the thousands of expedited screenings since early April, though authorities have not provided a precise count.

The letter to the Homeland Security and Justice Departments, signed by 13 senators and 53 members of the House of Representatives, said conducting the “credible fear” interviews as little as 24 hours after arrival in a holding facility was “inherently problematic,” especially without access to counsel.

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“Affording people fair adjudication — including adequate time to obtain evidence, prepare one’s case, and obtain and work with counsel — is particularly key for individuals fleeing life-threatening harm or torture,” the letter states.

Those signing include Alex Padilla of California, chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Rep. Nanette Barragán of California, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The Homeland Security Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Also Tuesday, the National Immigrant Justice Center said it would no longer serve asylum-seekers in Border Patrol custody “after more than two months attempting to overcome obstruction by the Biden administration that made it impossible to provide meaningful legal information and representation.” The group says it has represented about 30 people under the new policy.

The administration ramped up the speedy screenings as it ended pandemic-related asylum restrictions, known as Title 42 authority, and introduced new rules that make it far more difficult for people to seek asylum without applying online outside the U.S. or first seeking protection in a country they pass through.

The percentage of people who passed asylum screenings fell to 60 percent during the first half of July, after the fast-track process picked up, down from 77 percent the second half of March, just before it began.

The administration has faced criticism from immigration advocates that the new rules ignore obligations under U.S. and international law to provide asylum and from those backing restrictions who say authorities are acting too generously through the online appointment system, which admits up to 1,450 people a day, and parole for up to 30,000 a month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

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