In-Depth: Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to complement the president’s plan to build a wall by addressing immigration loopholes to strengthen the asylum process’ integrity and ensure it is only used by individuals who are genuinely seeking asylum:
“The asylum process should be for those who truly need it—not individuals using it after they are caught illegally crossing the border in an attempt to avoid deportation. That’s why I’m reintroducing my Asylum Abuse Reduction Act. By reforming our asylum process, we can minimize false asylum claims, ease the backlog on our immigration courts and end ‘catch and release’—all while improving the process for those who truly need it. The border is in a serious crisis. President Trump gets that—he really does—and he is changing it. I am proud of the administration’s continued work to build the wall, increase support for ICE and Customs and Border Protection agents and eliminate sanctuary cities. With the addition of the Asylum Abuse Reduction Act, we can make real reform to our broken immigration system and secure the southern border.”
Original cosponsor Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) adds:
“Our immigration system is flawed and too many individuals are manipulating our generous asylum laws to illegally enter the U.S. Asylum is meant to provide a safe haven for individuals fleeing persecution. It should be a last resort for those sincerely fearing for their lives – not be used as a free ticket into the United States for those who would simply prefer to live in our country. Our bill would strengthen our asylum laws so those who truly do need to come to us for safety can do so. Our immigration system is in need of long-term reforms to strengthen border security and encourage migrants to pursue legal immigration, which I’ll continue to work toward. In the meantime, our legislation takes a step toward reducing the number of individuals who falsely claim asylum to illegally enter the country.”
Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge and current fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower levels of immigration, is skeptical about the validity of many credible fear claims, arguing that “credible fear” has become an overly broad legal “catchall for truly inventive lawyers.” Arthur praises efforts to tighten the asylum application process, saying, “One, it is going to streamline the system. Two, it's going to cut down on the number of claims that are inevitably going to be found to be invalid."
The Trump administration asserts that asylum policies are currently broken and subject to “rampant abuse and fraud.” President Trump has made tighter controls of the asylum process and elevating the threshold standard of proof in credible fear interviews part of his list of immigration principles and policies.
In an October 2017 speech at the Department of Justice, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said too many immigrants were taking advantage of the rules and urged Congress to pass legislation to make it harder for asylum petitions to be granted. AG Sessions called the current policy wherein unauthorized immigrants whom federal officials determine to have a “credible fear” of returning to their home countries are released before immigration proceeding hearings a “loophole” in the law. AG Sessions advocated for imposing and enforcing penalties for “baseless” asylum applications, elevating the threshold standard of proof in credible fear interviews, and expanding the ability to return asylum seekers to safe third countries. Further, Sessions called many people’s credible fear claims simply a “ruse to enter the country illegally.”
Lindsay M. Harris, an assistant professor of law and co-director of the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law, argues that the increase in asylum claims is a natural result of the increase in refugees on a global level, as well as the proximity of the U.S. to Central America, where gang violence and poverty have pushed thousands out in recent years:
“Indeed, there has certainly been an increase in asylum claims — but this corresponds with the increase in refugees around the world. One of the humanitarian crises producing refugees happens to be south of our border, and this accounts for the exponential increase in asylum claims and individuals seeking protection in the U.S. through the credible fear system, rather than a sudden increase in fraudulent claims… [The increase in people seeking asylum is] very much based on the humanitarian crisis in Central America.”
Harris counters Sessions’ claim that individuals who never show up to their immigration hearings, or even file an asylum application after arriving in the U.S., do so because their claims lack merit, or their claims of fear were ruses to enter the U.S. illegally. Instead, Harris says, the problem is lack of clarity about the asylum application process. According to Harris, asylum seekers are released with “very little orientation” of what’s expected next, and many think articulating their case to asylum officers, and others think they have already been granted asylum upon their release.
Geoffrey A. Hoffman, director of the University of Houston Law Centers Immigration Clinic, sums up the issue: “The issue of fraud in individual cases should not overshadow the reality which is that grants of asylum are extremely low, especially for applicants who are not represented by counsel.”
Human Rights First, a group that provides pro bono legal assistance to refugees, calls the characterization of asylum seekers as “threats and frauds” baseless. The organization’s senior director, Eleanor Acer, says, “these individuals are not criminals. They are mothers, teenagers, and children desperate to escape violence and persecution.” Jeremy McKinney, an immigration lawyer in North Carolina and secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, adds that asylum-seekers are “amongst the most vulnerable people in our society,” and that “to have their rights curtailed so that the system moves faster I think should be considered a moral outrage.”
This legislation has four Republican Senate cosponsors in the 116th Congress. Its House companion, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK), has one cosponsor, Rep. Daniel Meuser (R-PA). Last Congress, this legislation didn’t have any cosponsors and didn’t receive a committee vote.
Of Note: From 2014 to 2016, the U.S. saw a 234% increase in asylum applications, generating a backlog in immigration courts. Currently, unauthorized migrants who cross the border and claim asylum are released pending credible fear screenings and other legal procedures — but they often fail to show up for proceedings, never completing the asylum process. In 2017, DHS reported that over 40,000 unauthorized immigrants never appeared for their court proceedings. At present, when asylum applicants fail to show up for court, their information is not entered into police databases.
In FY2016, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) decided on nearly 93,000 credible fear cases, establishing fear in about 78% of cases. For comparison, the agency reviewed over 5,000 cases in fiscal year 2009.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Brad Greeff)