The Trump Administration Demoted the US's Top Asylum Official

The move continues the president's assault on the legal immigration system.
September 5, 2019, 6:20pm
Ken Cuccinelli.
Ken Cuccinelli, the USCIS director. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty

Even as it subjects undocumented immigrants to draconian enforcement measures, the Trump administration continues to make the process of coming to the United States the so-called right way more difficult. According to a BuzzFeed News report on Tuesday, the top asylum official at U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), who had been critical of the administration's policies, has been sidelined by Ken Cuccinelli, the agency's hardline acting director.


The reassignment of John Lafferty, who led the Asylum Division at USCIS for six years, to an agency service center in Virginia has caused much strife among asylum officers who fear that Cuccinelli's reign will take an even darker turn. "I’m scared. Wondering how we’ll make it through to next year," one told BuzzFeed. "It’s all the more chilling because many of us saw Lafferty as a shield against this monstrous administration. He fell. What’s next?"

In a speech to members of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas in April, Donald Trump called the asylum program "a scam," suggesting that the administration—which has launched aggressive raids targeting undocumented immigrants, sought to block all immigrants from accessing public benefits, and supported cuts to the numbers of legal immigrants—is acting from a place of hostility to asylum more generally.

Though he has been installed at USCIS, Cuccinelli was initially recruited to be the administration's "immigration czar"—a role that would have him directing all immigration policy across different agencies—and it appears that he is attempting to function as such, regardless of his title. His appointment as acting director "spells the end of legal immigration as it currently exists," Danielle Spooner, the president of the union, representing USCIS workers, AFGE Council 119, told CNN in a statement earlier this year.

"It has become clear that the goal of this Administration is to end immigration altogether. How better to do that then by appointing as the leader of USCIS someone who knows nothing about immigration, Adjustment of Status or Naturalization, and whose sole purpose is to destroy the agency that grants these benefits," Spooner's statement on Cuccinelli's appointment continued. Council 119, which has sued the administration over its "Remain in Mexico" policy, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Lafferty's departure.

In 2008, as a state senator in Virginia, Cuccinelli introduced legislation that not only would have allowed workers to be fired for speaking Spanish but would have exempted them from unemployment benefits; two years later, as Virginia attorney general, he flirted with birtherism and wrote an amicus brief supporting Arizona's extreme anti-immigrant law SB 1070. Even before Trump took office, Cuccinelli was able to find friends and allies in Washington: "Steve King is one of my very favorite congressmen," he said in 2012 of the famously white supremacist Republican. "I probably spend more time with Steve on Capitol Hill than anybody else."

During his time in the administration, Cuccinelli has made headlines for his comments blaming a migrant father and daughter for drowning while attempting to cross the Rio Grande and his tortured reinterpretation of the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. But the damage he can do is more than rhetorical: dismantling the (already attenuated) asylum system, whether by passing laws or simply removing anyone who knows how it's supposed to work, is a major step towards blocking all forms of migration to the United States by any but the wealthiest and most privileged few.

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Brendan O'Connor is a freelance journalist working on a book about immigration and the far right for Haymarket.