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Trump’s Asylum Crackdown Intensifies the Fight for Refugee Rights

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For the past decade, Morgan Weibel has had to ask people she’s just met to tell her the worst things that have ever happened to them. The stories she’s heard involve some of the more brutal acts we, as human beings, commit against one another: She’s spoken to children who have been forced into sexual slavery; women who have survived rape used as a weapon of war. 

Weibel normally asks her questions in a nondescript office park just south of San Francisco, on a foggy hillside above the Bay. After inviting clients into her office, she’ll introduce herself—if they’re with their children, she might offer them markers and paper, so the kids can draw on her desk. She then explains her job as an asylum attorney, describing the complicated legal process that could turn her clients into refugees in the US.

Weibel is conscious that many of the asylum seekers she meets live with serious trauma. She works hard to respond to their emotional state: She observes when someone begins talking faster, and she notices if they suddenly glance out the window, where one can see a cemetery across the road. Eventually, she has to ask: What happened to you?

“It’s certainly an incredibly difficult moment,” Weibel said. “It’s incredibly difficult for someone whose trust has been violated over and over again to then open up to a complete stranger.”

While the legal asylum process features frequently in the news, asylum attorneys like Weibel say that the public often doesn’t understand how much of their vocation resembles social work, or even therapy. Building a case is like setting a broken bone: Attorneys have to be gentle, but also forceful and quick. It’s a heavy and delicate art—and it’s all been blown apart by the Trump administration’s ongoing crackdown on the asylum process.

“All of these additional barriers and new policies are putting incredible hurdles in front of people who have already had great difficulty to have to share and open up,” Weibel says.

Where once Weibel could meet with clients in her office, the centerpiece of Trump’s immigration policy now means that tens of thousands of asylum seekers remain stuck far from attorneys who once could have represented them. This means that, for attorneys like Weibel, the intense and personal conversations that once took place in their offices now happen over scratchy phone connections, in Mexico’s migrant shelters, or even on the streets of  some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the hemisphere.

Plush toys at the entrance of Tahirih Justice Center’s San Francisco office. (Jack Herrera)

The administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy, known officially as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), has forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Latin America to stay in Mexico as they await their court proceedings. While the vast majority of these people remain unrepresented—unlike US citizens charged with crimes, asylum seekers are not guaranteed the right to a lawyer—the few who have connected with attorneys are now forced to prepare much of their cases remotely.

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