With the 2020 election underway, John Oliver explains how the Trump administration has handled asylum seekers over the past four years, why it matters, and what we can do about it.
Asylum: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 7 Episode 27
Aired on October 25, 2020

Main segment: Asylum
Other segments:

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[John] Hi there! Welcome to the show, still taking place in this blank void, which makes me look like I’m in one of those old eHarmony commercials, but featuring the customers who didn’t find love. And it’s been a very busy week, dominated by the presidential campaign. Trump held multiple campaign rallies this week, including one in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he gave a surprisingly honest speech.

[President Trump] Before the plague came in, I had it made. I wasn’t coming to Erie. I mean, I have to be honest, there’s no way I was coming. I didn’t have to. I would have called you and said, “hey Erie, you know, if you have a chance, get out and vote.” We had this thing won.

[John] Wow. Bold move there to neg a swing state. But I guess we all had grand designs for this year “before the plague came in.” Trump was going to continue ignoring Erie like a phone call from one of his children. Lots of people were going to spend holidays with their still-alive grandparents. And I was going to continue my 43-year streak of never once setting foot in Danbury, Connecticut. It seems time makes fools of all of us.

But you can see why the president might be feeling nervous. This month has brought enough October surprises for him to render that term completely meaningless — from contracting Covid, to the multiple damning stories about his tax records, including the revelation he has a previously unknown bank account in China. And yet, for Trump supporters, it seems all of that is completely offset by this.

[Fox News] The FBI does, in fact, have possession of Hunter Biden’s laptop.

[Fox News] Emails allegedly from Hunter Biden’s laptop.

[Fox Business] Hunter Biden’s laptop.

[Fox News] Hunter Biden’s laptop.

[Fox News] Hunter Biden’s laptop.

[Fox News] Laptop.

[Fox News] Laptop.

[Fox News] Laptop.

[President Trump] And they found the laptop. You know what they call that? The laptop from hell.

[John] Yes, the laptop from hell. Not to be confused with the laptop in hell, which I believe is owned by Jeffrey Toobin. I’m so sorry for everything that you’ve seen. If you’re trying to figure out what the fuck they’re talking about there, it revolves around emails and text messages supposedly recovered from a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden. But there are a lot of red flags here — including the fact the “New York Post” story that broke it was reportedly “written mostly by a staff reporter who refused to put his name on it.” And the laptop’s conduit to the press is Rudy Giuliani, who intelligence officials flagged last year as the target of a Russian intelligence operation to feed misinformation to Trump. And Giuliani’s ability to spot fraudulent information is, at best, not great. He’s so technologically illiterate, he has butt-dialed a reporter and left an accidental voice mail, more than once. He recently accidentally uploaded a video of himself affecting a stereotypical Chinese accent, and just this week, it emerged he has a cameo in the new Borat film.

[Inside Edition] Screenshots from the movie were published by variety in Britain’s “The Guardian” newspaper.

[Elizabeth Wagmeister, Variety] Rudy Giuliani is seen helping the woman take her microphone off and then there is a scene where it appears that Rudy Giuliani’s hand goes down his pant.

[John] You know, it says something about Rudy’s character that the weirdest part of the sentence “Rudy Giuliani got tricked, then shoved his hand down his pants in a hotel room in front of a relative stranger” is that it doesn’t end at the word “relative.” But the point is, any information that Giuliani is passing on should be treated with extreme caution. And all of this functioned as a lead up to Thursday’s final presidential debate. Something everyone was dreading, after the fiasco of the first one just three weeks ago. And perhaps that is why the initial reaction to this week’s debate was one of slight relief.

[CBS News] This was an actual debate, I mean, as opposed to some of the other things we have had. There was a real exchange.

[Today] A spirited but civil debate last night.

[Today] Finally, a debate. It was substantive and informative.

[CNN] No one set themselves on fire in the last presidential debate.

[John] Yeah, true. Although historically, the bar for succeeding at these events has been a little higher than “nobody burns alive.” This is a presidential debate, not a beginner’s fire juggling class at the community center. And for any other candidate, things Trump said on that debate  stage would’ve been an act of self-immolation. He insisted we’re rounding no the turn on the coronavirus, which we very much are not. He claimed that wind turbines “kill all the birds,” which they don’t. And argued that Biden’s climate policy suggests, “if buildings had no windows, it would be a lovely thing,” which is just a very weird thing to say. And then there was this.

[President Trump] I am the least racist person — I can’t even see the audience no because it’s so dark — but I don’t care who’s in the audience — I’m the least racist person in this room.

[John] Right. That is strange for multiple reasons. First, he’s implying his answer might have changed if the house lights were up. “I can’t even see the audience, but I’m the least racist person in the — oh, hold on, is that Tom Hanks? Oh, shit, he’s definitely less racist than me, for sure. But I think I’m still in the top two.” Also, it’s worth noting that when he said he’s the least racist person in the room, that room contained — and this is true — his family. So he’s effectively throwing them under the bus there, too. Look, what is really sad here is that when people claim Trump was on his “best behavior” — that’s actually true. But his best behavior is still absolutely appalling. Because even when the bar is so low as to be virtually nonexistent, like, “don’t tell your supporters that you hate their stupid city,” or “don’t say everyone in the audience is more racist than you,” or “don’t hire a personal attorney who falls for a Borat prank 14 years after the first movie came out,” the unshakable fact is, unless you set the bar at “nobody caught fire,” Trump will always find a way to disappoint. And now this.

♪ ♪

[Announcer] And now.. No a moving taste of CNBC is exactly what you think it is.

[CNBC] Any man who references the classic Apocalypse Now movie in their latest research note is okay by us.

[CNBC] The horror, the horror, Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” “Apocalypse Now.”

[CNBC] He walked through and not even flinched with things exploding, reminds me of Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now.”

[CNBC] Again, trying to speak positive about g.e. Because I am a kind man and I’m a good man, not unlike “Apocalypse Now.”

* * *

[John] Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns immigration. It’s absolutely central to the American story, as is sometimes clumsily expressed in cartoons like this.

They heard about a country where life might let them win, they paid the fare to America and there they melted in. Lovely lady liberty with her book of recipes and the finest one she’s got is the great American melting pot. The great American melting pot.

[John] Okay, deeply weird metaphor aside there, I will say this: if you’re cooking a bunch of humans in a melting pot, don’t include the English. Believe me, we’ll ruin the dish. We’re bland and yet also totally overpowering to the palate. We are basically the cilantro of the human race.

We’ve talked about immigration repeatedly on this show but tonight, we’re going to focus on just one narrow area of it: asylum. It’s the legal process by which people who are fleeing persecution, and make it to the U.S., can apply to stay here. And asylum seekers are a group that, in theory, everyone should be able to support — they are the literal huddled masses yearning to breathe free who the statue of liberty has, for centuries, fricasseed. But Trump is famously not a fan. He went on about asylum at length in Thursday’s debate, and he loves to riff about it whenever he gets in front of a crowd.

[President Trump] The asylum program is a scam. Some of the roughest people you’ve ever seen. People that look like they should be fighting for the UFC. They read a little page given by lawyers.

[President Trump] I am very fearful for my life. I am very worried that I will be accosted if I was sent back home.

[President Trump] Oh, give him asylum. He’s afraid. He’s afraid. We don’t love the fact he’s got tattoos on his face.

[John] Okay, there’s a lot to unpack there, starting with the fact that Trump seems to think people with facial tattoos are just inherently scary, something definitively disproven by the existence of Post Malone. He looks like a build-a-bear who spent too much time at the tattoo station. Also, as you probably guessed, 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.” That is simply not true. Historically, the biggest loophole has been to be the parents of someone that Donald Trump wishes would fuck him.

And for the record, asylum seekers are not all tattooed UFC fighters. They’re also people like Berta, who fled Honduras after ms-13 gang members tried to force her 12-year-old granddaughter into marriage. Berta refused, they threatened to set her on fire, so she and her granddaughter fled to the U.S. They were separated, Berta was detained, and I’ll let her lawyer pick the story up from there.

[“Immigration Nation” (2020)]
[Eduardo Beckett, Immigration Lawyer] Berta, my client, she’s a 63-year-old grandmother who legally entered the United States. And she’s fleeing for her life, but she did it the correct way. Why? ‘Cause she went to the port of entry and basically turned herself in. It’s not like she was hiding, she was trying to be smuggled in the trunk of a car. She did it the right way.

[Berta] I’ve been here for 17 months. I’ve been here for a long time already. I don’t know why immigration won’t let me leave. I don’t owe anything. Only because I came to ask for protection from this country.

[John] That is ridiculous. If you asked the cops for help, and they responded by throwing you into detention, you’d be absolutely furious. You’d probably also be black, but let’s try and take this one systemic social crisis at a time.

And Berta’s story isn’t even a one-off. The Trump administration’s attack on asylum has been focused, dedicated, and deeply resourceful. And I know 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.

So tonight, let’s talk about our asylum system. How it’s supposed to work, and just a few of the key ways this administration has undermined it. And let’s start with how it’s supposed to work at our border. Ideally, an asylum seeker presents themselves to ask for protection, and an officer performs a “credible fear screening.” If there is a chance they might face danger if they’re sent back home, they’re allowed to remain in the U.S. pending a date in immigration court. Which makes sense. When a person says their life is at stake, you want to err on the side of believing them while you weigh the facts of their case. If someone says “I’m drowning,” your first move should be to help them out of the pool, not leave them in there while you convene a hearing to determine whether or not they’re a fish who is lying.

Now you should know, even before Trump, the odds of being granted asylum were not great, with immigration advocates saying less than half of all claims are granted. Now that is partly because — as we’ve discussed before — many migrants don’t have a lawyer to help them navigate a very complicated process. And it’s partly because the bar to qualify for asylum is high. You have to be able to prove you’re being persecuted on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion. And there’s always going to be room for interpretation there. What qualifies as membership in a social group or a political opinion? For instance, someone being persecuted for criticizing a drug cartel might well argue that their criticism is political if they live in a narco-state. But the Trump administration has told immigration judges to apply the criteria very narrowly, as this attorney explains to a room full of asylum seekers.

[“Axios on HBO” (2019)] The asylum process does not protect everyone. Cases that pertain to cartels or gangs extorting you are almost impossible to win. Uh-huh?

I have a problem in my country. I can’t go back.

This is very common. They already killed family who didn’t pay. Criminality isn’t protected.

You’re saying we can only prove it if we turn up dead?

Even then, if it’s not the right reason, it’s not protected.

[John] Wow. I don’t know what’s more jarring there, that man’s pitch-black joke about getting murdered or the lawyer taking it at complete face value. “Ha, that’s very funny, but seriously, if you could die holding documentation that you were murdered for your religion, that would actually be a big help.”

So the asylum process has never been easy. But this administration has made it absolute hell. Their policy of family separation caused widespread outrage, but they’ve done so much more than that. And it’s worth slowing down to look at three tactics they’ve used in particular. Migrant protection protocols, “safe third country agreements,” and title 42. And I know none of those have the harrowing ring of “family separation,” but each represents another cruel, calculated decision that has largely flown under the radar.

And let’s start with the migrant protection protocols, or, as they’re more commonly known, the “remain in Mexico” program. Very basically, this policy forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their cases to fully play out in U.S. immigration court rather than admit them to safety first. We’ve already done this to over 67,000 people, many of whom wound up in makeshift camps that have emerged at the border. And since we started limiting the number even allowed to ask for asylum at the border each day, in some places, the migrants themselves had to work out a system for whose turn it was next.

[AlJazeera] The list is a strange thing. Volunteers who are migrants themselves keep them in a notepad in the Mexican border city of Tijuana. It determines the order in which the thousands of asylum seekers here will be seen by U.S. Officials. No one knows exactly who started it or when, but it’s evolved into a system to try and keep order as the U.S. has slowed up the processing of asylum claims.

[John] Look, there are plenty of things you’d expect to be hand-written in a college ruled notebook. Math homework, sure. A list of the cutest boys in homeroom, natch. Just an absolute shitload of cool ss? You know it. What you wouldn’t expect would be the names of thousands of families for whom this scrap of notebook paper is their only lifeline to safety. Because how the fuck have we let that be the best system available to them?

And conditions on the border can be dire. In February, more than 2500 migrants were living in a camp in Matamoros, where there was only one toilet for every 60 people, and safe drinking water was scarce. And even people who don’t wind up in those camps can be in real jeopardy. Because migrants in general can be targets for cartels who regularly kidnap and try to extract ransom money from those they suspect of having family in the U.S. This is done so often, there’s a whole system in place for it, as this cartel member explains.

[“Vice on Showtime” (2020) Showtime] We just pull people off the streets, take them into a safe house. We reach their families in the United States to ask for money.

How much money are we talking here?

All the way from $10,000 to $20,000 American dollars. We know they can afford it. That’s why we do what we do.

What if they don’t pay?

Well, they end up where they end up.

[John] “They end up where they end up.” He’s talking about murder victims with the same casualness most people reserve for lost socks. And as of may, there were over a thousand publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against asylum seekers and migrants forced by the U.S., completely unnecessarily, to wait in Mexico. In fact, kidnappings are such a fact of life, cartels will give some kidnapped migrants a code word upon release, so if they’re kidnapped again, the keyword would indicate that they’d already paid the ransom. And it’s pretty bleak when drug cartels have a more efficient system for keeping track of asylum seekers than the U.S. government.

And yet despite the wreckage this administration has caused, it’s Trumpeted its “remain in Mexico” program as a great success. In fact, Chad Wolf — acting secretary of homeland security and undisputed chaddiest wolf — has touted it, using a pretty weird metric.

[Chad Wolf] What we’re seeing is about half of these individuals that are put in the program never show up for their court hearings. So individuals that are put in this program that know they do not have a, again, a meritorious claim, simply choose to walk away.

[John] Okay, real quick — get fucked, Chad, you human razor burn. Because remember, 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! So a person not showing up in court after you force 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!

And for the record, the government can make these hearings pretty It may bear no date or time, or your hearing may be scheduled for when the courts aren’t open, including one that was scheduled at 1:00 a.m. It can be hard to know about any changes to date of hearings given that some border patrol agents filling out forms for migrants have written in “Facebook” as a street address. All in all, the government system is about as effective as painting “meet us at the place” on a raccoon and throwing it over the wall into Mexico. Good luck getting the instructions, and if you do, good luck figuring out how to follow them.

So this program all but shut off the pathway for many asylum seekers to enter the country. But that seemingly wasn’t enough, because the administration then came up with “safe third country” agreements. Basically, the U.S. managed to force Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to sign up to this. And it meant that we could bar migrants from seeking asylum here, and send them to apply for it in those countries instead. Which is completely absurd, since for many migrants, those are the exact countries they’re seeking asylum from. “Oh, you’re fleeing Honduras? Why not try El Salvador! It’s right next door so you can stay in touch with family, friends, and the people who want to murder you!” And if that wasn’t bad enough, none of these three countries have robust asylum systems, as the president of El Salvador himself admits.

[“60 Minutes”, 2019]
[Interviewer] A member of the president’s inner circle said that asylum seekers could end up staying in El Salvador, that that could happen. Is El Salvador prepared for that?

[Nayib Bukele, president, El Salvador] Well, not right now. We don’t have asylum capacities, but we can build them.

[Interviewer] But you don’t have it now.

[Nayib Bukele] We don’t have it now. When we have it —

[Interviewer] and if he said, “I can throw up a tent.”

[Nayib Bukele] A tent? That’s not — that’s not asylum capacity. No.

[John] No. No, it really isn’t. Throwing up a tent doesn’t inherently give you asylum capacity. There are only two things throwing up a tent can give you: shelter from the elements, and the arena for a shame-based baking crucible whose only prize is the narrow avoidance of public failure. And quick side note: why the fuck did the new season of “The Great British Bake-off” make the first showstopper challenge “celebrity cake busts?” Because it gave us squashed Freddie Mercury, something the baker insisted was Lupita Nyong’o, and a photo perfect David Bowie. That baker deserves a Paul Hollywood handshake. The rest of you need to think about what you’ve done.

And forcing migrants to sit in refugee camps or sending them to countries with non-functioning asylum systems is comfortably bad enough, before you get to what happened earlier this year, when the administration’s invoked Title 42 of the U.S. Code. And that isn’t even an immigration law. It’s a provision that gives the government broad power to act during a public health crisis. And the Trump administration is currently claiming that, because of the pandemic, it gives them the authority to shut down the border to virtually all migrants. And not just that — they’re also claiming that it allows them to take asylum seekers who’ve already made it into the U.S., And expel them with no due process whatsoever. It is a transparent attempt to exploit this pandemic to do what they want with migrants — although, Mark Morgan, Trump’s head of customs and border protection, has repeatedly insisted that nothing could be further from the truth.

[Mark Morgan] Title 42 has nothing to do with immigration enforcement. I’m gonna say that again. I’ve said it before. I’m gonna continue to say it. Title 42 has nothing to do with immigration enforcement and everything to do with public health.

[John] Yeah, Mark, we’re aware you keep saying this has nothing to do with immigration. But a Trump official saying his actions have nothing to do with immigration is about as believable as cookie monster saying his actions have nothing to do with cookies. Because of course they do. They’re the thing you’re so obsessed with, it literally makes you a monster.

And it’s a little hard to take this administration citing their deep concern about the coronavirus, even before you learn that the CDC was apparently forced to issue the Title 42 order, despite their own scientists saying there was no evidence it would slow the coronavirus. So this clearly has nothing to do with public health at all. And if you need any more proof, Stephen Miller — Trump’s top immigration adviser and world’s tallest minion — has apparently been trying to invoke Title 42 for immigration purposes long before Covid. He reportedly pushed to invoke it twice last year, once when an outbreak of mumps spread through immigration detention facilities, and again when border patrol stations were hit with the flu. In fact, using emergency public health powers to curb immigration was apparently on a wish list that miller crafted within the first six months of the administration. Incidentally, the rest of that wish list was just what looks like a hand-drawn picture of a ripped Stephen Miller and “maybe an all-white reboot of ‘hidden figures’?” Circled three times.

And you can kind of see why this appeals so much to Miller. Because invoking Title 42 has basically created a shadow deportation system that moves quickly and is accountable to no one. And they’ve used it a lot. Since March, there’ve been nearly 200,000 expulsions in which asylum seekers were sent back without so much as a court hearing. And the government has gone out of its way to avoid scrutiny. For example, unaccompanied minors are usually kept in shelters, where immigration attorneys can find them, and try and help them with their case. But by citing public health concerns, the government has instead been quietly keeping kids in hotels, supervised by private contractors. And the rare glimpses we’ve gotten of this have been absolutely chilling. Just watch as a civil rights attorney tries to help the kids but gets stopped.

[twitter @TXCivilRights]

Are you police? Are you police?

You can’t be here.

Can I ask who you are?

Desperately trying to communicate to children, the associated place so they are being held by the fourth floor of the Hilton in suites hotel in McAllen, Texas.

If you are detained, give me her name!

Get out of here.

Who are you?

Don’t worry about who we are.

Are you police?

Get out.

Get out. Get out. Get out now!

[John] What the fuck is happening there? Although I am curious if, after that interaction, those men felt they’d successfully hidden the government’s child prison. “Whew, that was a close one! I got a bit worried when he asked “who are you,” but then Randy said, “don’t worry who we are.” Nice save there, Randy! That’s the last time anyone asks us questions about this mysteriously off-limits hotel floor packed with terrified children.”

Now, incidentally, our lawyers are insisting that I have to clarify that that Hampton Inn said they had made those bookings without knowing what they’d be used for, and have canceled their business. Because the entity you’re definitely angriest at right now is the Hampton fucking Inn.

And when you put all this together, this administration has effectively taken an asylum system that was already imperfect and shattered it. And the thing is, they’re now trying to make this damage permanent. Because along with extending Title 42 indefinitely, they’ve drafted new regulations that would, among other things, make it easier for immigration judges to reject asylum requests out of hand, make it more difficult, if not impossible, to win a case involving gender-based violence or gang threats, and make it so migrants are required to submit complete asylum applications — which have to be in English, and with all supporting evidence — within just 15 days of their first court hearing. And that is regardless of whether they have a lawyer. The Trump administration’s attack on this system has just been relentless. And there are lives at stake here. Remember Berta, who came here to protect her 12-year-old granddaughter? Just watch her lawyer update her on the outcome of her case.

[Immigration Nation, 2020]

[Lawyer] Well, here we are. The court appeal was rejected.

[Berta] They are looking for me. And they will kill me right away. I don’t want to —

[Lawyer] So you are afraid?

[Berta] Yes. I’m scared.

[John] Yeah, the government, acting on our behalf, deported Berta back to Honduras, where you should know, she once again fled, and is currently living in limbo in Mexico. And the tragic thing is, in some ways, she’s luckier than many asylum seekers. She at least had a lawyer and her case was heard. But for so many, especially now, there’s just no telling if or when they’ll even get that far. And if you’re wondering, “well, what we can do about this?” There is actually one thing you can do. You can vote for Joe Biden. And I know that sounds simplistic, especially considering that our immigration policy has been pretty shitty under democratic administrations too, like the one Joe Biden was in for eight years. And I am not saying he’s the perfect candidate, far from it. I personally find his opposition to Medicare for all utterly ridiculous, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Also, I think aviator glasses should only be worn by hot pilots, cute babies, and cute baby pilots.

But the fact is, a lot of our immigration policy is set solely by the executive branch. And you should know, Biden has explicitly promised to end the remain in Mexico policy and restore asylum eligibility for domestic violence survivors and victims of gang persecution. And those could be life-saving changes. One immigration attorney we spoke with has said, “I spend hours every day telling asylum-seekers stuck in Mexico, “we won’t know until November third.” They cry. They pray. They ask about the latest polls. I show my countdown timer. They show me their scars.”

And obviously, Biden will have to do a lot more, and we’ll have to hold him to the promises he’s made, but we can’t begin to fix the damage done by this administration until we replace the administration itself. If we even want a shot at change, it’s on us to vote, and then advocate like lives depend on it. Because the fact is, we badly need an asylum system that works. And that is one that’s based on compassion, due process, and of course, ultimately, cannibalism by a giant green statue. And now this.

♪ ♪

[Announcer] And now, like we said, the movie taste of people on CNBC is exactly what you think it is.

A lot of this is like “the godfather, just business.

I call it the godfather three stock market. However much investors want to get out, the price structure keeps pulling the back end.

Just when I thought I was out, they are pulling me back in.

That is used a lot.

“The Godfather.”

No, you pulled me back in. I mean, for an absolutely awful movie, I mean, that — that definitely is — I mean, compared —

That is an awful movie?

Compared to G1 and G2. Speak another time has come up to clean up the ship, to take care of the family businesses in the “The Godfather.”

It’s kind of like “The Godfather” 3, not that important.

As they say in “The Godfather,” this is the life we chose.

I was reminded by the soliloquy that Marlon Brando gives about sonny saying things you shouldn’t say, hotheaded.

Is that “On the Waterfront?”

“On the Waterfront?”

I don’t wash Diane Keaton movies because her character aborted Michael Corleone’s baby in “The Godfather.”

I can relate that back to the Disney sitcom.

[John] that’s our show. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week. Good night.

♪ ♪


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