Lafferty received a leadership award last year from the agency’s then-director, L. Francis Cissna. But the asylum division of USCIS under Lafferty has been a source of frustration to immigration hard-liners in the White House, especially senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller.
Cissna was pushed out in May, when the White House installed former Virginia attorney general and conservative activist Ken Cuccinelli as acting director.
For years, Miller and others in the administration have argued the officers who screen migrants seeking safe refuge are often too sympathetic during initial screening interviews and too credulous while evaluating their stories of persecution and hardship. Tightening the asylum process has been a priority for the White House, which argues the humanitarian program is being abused by a flood of Central American migrants filing meritless claims to gain easy entry to the United States.
A pilot program launched this year with Miller’s backing has trained Border Patrol agents to conduct screening interviews in place of asylum officers, with the assumption that they will take a more skeptical and adversarial approach.
Lafferty was well-liked by the agency’s roughly 500 asylum officers, who have been working long hours in recent years amid a soaring number of border-crossers seeking to halt the deportation process by citing a fear of harm if sent home.
“He was pro-asylum officer,” said one officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. “He clearly respected their work, and you could tell he wasn’t too enthused about the various new policies under the Trump administration.”
The officers, many of whom are trained in refugee work and human rights law, typically administer extensive interviews to those seeking protection to determine whether the applicants should be referred to the U.S. immigration court system. About 80 percent of applicants pass that initial threshold, but asylum officers and many immigration scholars say that is not because the officers are too sympathetic to migrants. U.S. asylum laws are written to err on the side of leniency, they say, to avoid deporting someone who might be killed or harmed in their native country.
Trump has repeatedly mocked the humanitarian program and has told crowds that dangerous criminals are using it to game the system.
“The asylum program is a scam,” Trump said in a speech earlier this year. Among those gaining entry to the United States, he said, are “some of the roughest people you’ve ever seen, people that look like they should be fighting for the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] . . . you look at this guy, you say ‘Wow, that’s a tough cookie!’ ”
Tensions between the administration’s political appointees and asylum officers surfaced in court earlier this year when the union representing the staffers sued in federal court seeking to block President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum applicants to remain outside U.S. territory while their cases are processed. The union said the policy was contrary to the “moral fabric” of the nation.
A USCIS official said the agency has the authority to reassign these high-level managers to best serve its needs. Andrew Davidson, a career official who currently runs the agency’s fraud detection unit, will replace Lafferty on an acting basis, according to a USCIS staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose personnel moves.