In-Depth: Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced this bill 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:
“We need to build the wall along the southern border, but we also need to close all of the loopholes that illegal aliens use to come into this country. Smugglers and illegal aliens have attempted to use false claims of asylum to gain entry to the United States. 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. My legislation is just one part of improving our nation’s border security. Paired with building the wall, increasing support for ICE and Customs and Border Patrol and eliminating sanctuary cities, we can make a meaningful reform to improve our immigration process and protect American families.”
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, U.S. 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.”
However, there is no data that proves AG Sessions’ claim of fewer meritorious asylum claims. 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.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who visited the federal detention center in SeaTac, Washington to look at conditions, disagrees with the characterization that the 174 immigrant women detained at that facility are fraudulent asylum seekers:
“What I heard from the women today being held at the detention center was heartbreaking… They spoke of fleeing threats of rape, gang violence and political persecution. They spoke of their children who have been killed by gangs and their fear of being raped. The mothers could not stop crying when they spoke about their children – young girls and boys who were taken from them with no chance to say goodbye and no plan for reunification. Of the 206 immigrants being held [at SeaTac], 174 are women. I spent almost three hours meeting with the women, almost all of whom are asylum seekers. They come from 16 different countries with the largest numbers from Cuba, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Over a third of the women were mothers who had been forcibly separated from their children, who range in age from 1-year-old to teenagers. The vast majority of the mothers have not spoken with their children in weeks and they have no idea where they are. Most have been held in detention for more than two weeks and many for over a month… It is outrageous that Department of Homeland Security is violating human rights and our international legal obligations under human rights law to swiftly and humanely process asylum seekers. I will also continue to push to defund ICE, to completely reform the immigration detention system and end mass prosecutions by the Department of Justice, and defund any Department of Homeland Security programs that break up families. What I saw today is simply not who, we, as a country should be. This is cruel and inhumane treatment and we cannot allow it to continue on our watch.”
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.”
Of Note: This bill is a complement to another bill authored by Sen. Inhofe, the WALL Act of 2018. That bill would fully fund the border wall that President Trump called for in his 2016 election campaign by reducing spending on welfare and tax credits for unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.
From 2014 to 2016, the U.S. has seen a 234% increase in asylum applications, generating a backlog in immigration courts. Currently, unauthorized migrants who cross the border and declare 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 fiscal year 2016, 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)