A Central American woman applying for asylum in Boston is suing the federal government, saying an immigration official falsified records of a recent appointment.
The woman's attorney, Desmond FitzGerald, says his client showed up for an asylum interview, answered questions for about an hour and was then marked as not having appeared for the appointment.
The asylum seeker, who has not been named publicly, arrived at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in Boston on the morning of March 14 for a scheduled appointment.
She went through a series of standard asylum interview questions and, FitzGerald says, answered to the best of her ability. There were specific questions from the government including, "When did you enter the U.S.?" and, "When did you file your asylum application?"
And this is where the interview allegedly derails.
FitzGerald says the immigration officer was unsatisfied with some of his client's responses and asked for more information. FitzGerald advised his client that she didn't need to provide any additional details.
"If [immigration officials] felt like she did not provide as complete an answer as they would have liked, they are within their authority to make an adverse decision," FitzGerald said. "They could say, 'Based upon her responses, we do not want to grant her application.' But that's the only authority that they have."
Instead, the officer noted that the woman didn't appear for the interview at all. And not appearing for a scheduled appointment sets into motion an entire series of actions.
"That immediately allows her to be put in deportation proceeding," FitzGerald said. "It stops her from being eligible to get a work permit, and she could be taken into custody."
FitzGerald, who has been practicing immigration law for 20 years, said he's never had this happen to a client.
In federal court on Thursday, Ray Farquhar, with the U.S. Attorney's Office, pointed to a recent shift in the way asylum officers handle interviews.
Since February, Farquhar said, if a person now appears for an asylum interview and doesn't answer questions adequately, then asylum officers can mark them as a no-show.
This is an important differentiation. An applicant with a pending asylum application could remain eligible for work authorization. But if an asylum seeker is marked as not showing for an interview, then work authorization is likely no longer an option.
A spokesman for USCIS said the agency has "not recently implemented any policy changes in reference to people who have showed up at scheduled interviews.”
Susan Church, a Cambridge-based immigration attorney and past chair of New England's American Immigration Lawyers' Association, says this is the first she's heard of this practice by asylum officers, but she finds it alarming.
"It's just yet another of a long, long line of tricks that this administration is pulling in order to prevent legal immigration to the United States," Church said. "This is a stunningly new and scary policy. You know, generally our asylum office is actually very cooperative with applicants and respectful of them, so I can't imagine that this would end up being a largely employed device."
The government plans to file a motion to dismiss the case by April 25.
This segment aired on March 30, 2018.