Democrats, the asylum crisis is real

Given President Donald Trump's mean-spirited and often bigoted attitudes on immigration, it pains me to say that he is right that the United States faces a crisis with its asylum system. Democrats might hope that the out-of-control situation at the southern border undermines Trump's image among his base as a tough guy who can tackle immigration, but they should be careful. It actually works to the president's advantage.

Since 2014, the flow of asylum-seekers into the United States has skyrocketed. Last year, immigration courts received 160,0000 asylum claims, a 240% increase from 2014. At this point, around 100,000 migrants are being stopped at the border each month. If these trends persist, 1% of all Guatemalans and Hondurans will have tried to migrate to the United States this year, according to the Washington Office on Latin America. The result is a staggering backlog in immigration courts, with more than 300,000 asylum cases pending, and the average immigration case has been pending for more than 700 days.

It is also clear that the rules surrounding asylum are vague, too lax and being gamed. The initial step for many asylum-seekers is to convince officers that they have a "credible fear" of persecution in their home countries, and 76% meet the criteria. Some applicants for asylum have suspiciously similar stories, using identical phrases. Many simply use the system to enter the United States and then melt into the shadows or gain a work permit while their application is being reviewed.

As a senior Homeland Security Department official said in April, "the system is on fire."

The United States has an elaborate immigration system that takes in about 1 million people legally every year. Asylum is meant to be granted to a small number of people in extreme circumstances - not as a substitute for the process of immigration itself. Yet the two have gotten mixed up.

As The Atlantic's David Frum has pointed out, the idea of a right to asylum is a relatively recent one, dating to the early years of the Cold War. Guilt-ridden over the rejection of many Jewish refugees during World War II, the UN created a right of asylum to protect those who were fleeing regimes where they would be killed or imprisoned because of their identity or beliefs. It was intended to help the victims of totalitarian regimes like Hitler's and Stalin's. This standard has gotten broader and broader over the years, including threats of gang warfare and domestic violence.

These looser criteria, coupled with the reality that it is a safe way to enter the United States, have made the asylum system easy to abuse. Applications from Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans have surged even though the murder rate in their countries has been cut in half. More broadly, hundreds of millions of people around the world who live in poor, unstable regions where threats of violence abound could apply for asylum. Do they all have the legal right to enter the United States through a back door, bypassing the normal immigration process?

The Trump administration's approach has been mostly trying to toughen up the criteria, hire more judges and push Mexico to keep applicants from entering the United States. Some toughening is essential. For example, the loophole that allows applicants to work while their claim is pending has simply created perverse incentives.

But a much larger fix is needed. The criteria for asylum need to be rewritten and substantially tightened. The number of courts and officials dealing with asylum must be massively expanded. (According to former immigration official David Martin, today's crisis has its roots in the budgetary cuts of the mid-Obama years, which starved the government of resources to process asylum applicants quickly.) People should not be able to use asylum claims as a way to work in America. There needs to be much greater cooperation with the home countries of these applicants rather than insults, threats and aid freezes. No one fix will do it, but we need the kind of sensible bipartisan legislation that has resolved past immigration crises.

Democrats have spent most of their efforts on this topic assailing the Trump administration for its heartlessness. Fine. But that does not address the roots of this genuine crisis. If things continue to spiral downward and America's southern border seems out of control, Trump's tough rhetoric and hardline stands will become increasingly attractive to the public. Keep in mind that the rise of populism in the Western world is almost everywhere tied to fears of growing, out-of-control immigration.

Fareed Zakaria's email address is

© 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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