Over seven seasons, Last Week Tonight has covered numerous aspects of the byzantine US immigration system, from immigration courts, to border patrols, to the Trump administration’s disastrous “zero tolerance” family separation policy. And on Sunday, host John Oliver turned to a narrow slice of America’s legal immigration network: asylum, or the legal process by which people who flee persecution apply to stay in the United States.
Trump has repeatedly denigrated asylum seekers and discredited the process as a scam, although “as you’ve probably guessed”, Oliver said, “the asylum process isn’t a simple recitation of magic words by which all manner of fraudulent claims are let through, nor is it responsible for, as Trump’s official White House website calls it, the ‘biggest loophole to gain entry into our great country’”.
Asylum seekers are like Berta, a woman featured in the Netflix documentary Immigration Nation, who fled Honduras after MS-13 gang members threatened to light her on fire and force her 12-year-old granddaughter into marriage. Berta turned herself into US authorities at the border as she claimed asylum, only to be separated from her granddaughter and held indefinitely in a US detention center.
“That is ridiculous – if you asked the cops for help and responded by throwing you into detention, you’d be absolutely furious,” said Oliver of Berta’s case. “You’d probably also be black, but let’s try to take this one systemic social crisis at a time.”
Berta’s story is not a one-off, Oliver continued, because the Trump administration’s attack on asylum has been “focused, dedicated and deeply resourceful. And I know that those aren’t adjectives you’re used to associating with this administration, but in this one area, they’ve been truly disciplined about being truly evil.”
Typically, Oliver explained, asylum seekers turn themselves into authorities at the border for a “credible fear” screening, and are allowed to stay in the US pending a date in immigration courts. Even before Trump, less than half of those requests were granted; claimants often don’t have a lawyer, and the bar for asylum is high, as you have to prove persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion – criteria the Trump administration has applied narrowly.
In other words, “the asylum process has never been easy”, said Oliver, “but this administration has made it absolute hell” with new protocols that “don’t have the harrowing ring of family separation” but represent “another cruel, calculated decision that has largely flown under the radar”.
The “Remain in Mexico” program, for example, has forced asylum seekers to await judgments from deliberately backlogged immigration courts in makeshift, inadequate and unsafe refugee camps in Mexico. Conditions are often unsanitary and unsafe; as of May, there were at least 1,114 publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping and other violent assaults on migrants sent back to Mexico unnecessarily by the US.
Kidnappings are such a fact of life, Oliver added, that cartels will give some people a codename upon release to indicate, if they were captured again, that they had already paid a ransom. “It’s pretty bleak when drug cartels have a more efficient system for keeping track of asylum seekers than the US government,” Oliver said.
Many migrants relegated to Mexico have missed their asylum hearings in the US, a fact the acting homeland security secretary and “human razor burn” Chad Wolf attributed to “walking away” from not having a “meritorious claim”.
“These hearings are migrants’ only shot at getting to safety; it’s everything they’ve been waiting for, and if they miss their hearing, they lose their case,” Oliver retorted. “So a person not showing up in court after you forced them to wait in a dangerous area without adequate shelter or support isn’t proof they were trying to cheat the system. It’s proof your system is not fucking working.”
The government hasn’t made the hearings easy to attend; immigration attorneys have reported hearings scheduled for outside court hours and notices without date or time. Basically, “the government system is about as effective as painting ‘meet us at the place’ on a raccoon and just throwing it over the wall into Mexico”, Oliver said. “Good luck getting the instructions, and if you do, good luck figuring out how to follow them.”
And then there’s Title 42, a provision outside immigration code that gives the federal government broad power to act during a public health crisis. The Trump administration, citing the coronavirus pandemic, has invoked Title 42 to close the border and eject migrants with pending applications in what Oliver called “a transparent attempt to exploit this pandemic to do whatever they want with migrants”.
“Invoking Title 42 has basically created a shadow deportation system that moves quickly and is accountable to no one,” Oliver added; since March, there have been 197,371 expulsions of asylum seekers, without a successful court hearing.
The system, Oliver concluded, is “shattered”, and potentially solidifying, as the Trump administration aims to make Title 42 permanent, drafted new regulations to reject asylum requests outright and redesigned the application process in English, with impossibly tight deadlines.
For those despairing, Oliver concluded, “there is actually one thing you can do: you can vote for Joe Biden”.
Although the American immigration system has been “pretty shitty under Democratic administrations too, like the one Joe Biden was in for eight years” and Biden isn’t “the perfect candidate” (Oliver found his stance against Medicare for All “utterly ridiculous” and “aviator glasses should only be worn by hot pilots, cute babies and cute baby pilots”), Biden has promised to end the Remain in Mexico policy and restore asylum eligibility for domestic violence survivors and victims of gang persecution.
“The fact is, a lot of our immigration policy is set solely by the executive branch,” Oliver concluded. “We can’t begin to fix the damage done by this administration until we replace the administration itself.”