How waves of immigrants are overwhelming asylum process

Before 2013, about one of every 100 immigrants arriving at our borders asked for asylum. Now, it's one out of every 10.

The glut of immigrants at our southern border has President Donald Trump telling asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico, as he threatens to close the border completely.

"If Mexico doesn't immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States throug (sic) our Southern Border, I will be CLOSING the Border, or large sections of the Border, next week," Trump posted Friday on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has begun performing "direct releases" into the U.S. of some asylum-seekers arriving over the Mexico border because of overcrowding at its two facilities and others run by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Lawsuits over immigration policy are nearly as common as tweets.

Some say the increase in people seeking asylum is evidence the world has grown more dangerous. Others say immigrants are abusing the system. Yet, in 2018, 76 percent of those seeking asylum presented enough evidence to pass the initial U.S. screening establishing they had credible fears of persecution in their home countries.

That standard stems from The Refugee Act of 1980, which opened U.S. asylum as a legal process to anyone on the planet with a "well-founded fear of persecution" due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Passing the "credible fear" hurdle by no means indicates asylum will be granted, but it does allow entrance to the U.S. while a case is being heard - a process that now can take years.

"A credible fear referral doesn't equal asylum status, but it does earn a free ticket into the U.S., allowing individuals to disappear into the interior to live and work illegally," says Jessica Collins, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "The reality is that our asylum system is being exploited by those simply seeking economic opportunity, not those fleeing persecution, exacerbating crisis after crisis at our Southern border and keeping those who truly need asylum in the back of the line."

Few immigrants have hope of another route to legally reside in the United States. With caps and quotas on legal immigration by country, even immigrants with family or jobs in the U.S. often must wait years and even decades to be allowed entry. Demand for about 140,000 immigrant worker visas a year far exceeds the supply, and most are available to people with "extraordinary" abilities or advanced degrees.

While asylum requests have soared, the number of people arrested on charges of illegally crossing the border has dropped sharply since 2000, according to The New York Times.

Illegally crossing the border is a criminal offense, but asylum is a matter for civil courts. And that is where change is most needed, says David Iglesias, a Wheaton College professor who prosecuted many criminal cases between 2001 and 2007 as U.S. attorney for the District of New Mexico.

"The laws haven't caught up," says Iglesias, director of the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics and Economics. Some people seeking asylum might not meet the legal requirements when it comes to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, but they still have a well-founded fear of persecution due to gangs or violence in their homeland, Iglesias said.

Asylum is granted unevenly. Statistics from 2015 show that New York City immigration judges denied 16 percent of asylum requests, while judges in Atlanta denied 98 percent.

And then there is the backlog of cases.

By the end of 2018, there were 325,514 asylum cases pending. In December, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services completed 5,953 cases but received 8,015 new applications. Of those, 1,926 (24 percent) came from Venezuela. Guatemala was second with 716, followed by China with 639, El Salvador with 428, Mexico with 388, Honduras with 378, Haiti with 260, India with 200, Nigeria with 188, Colombia with 161 and a smattering from other countries.

The U.S. has taken in more than 2 million people seeking asylum since World War II, but "we can't take everybody in," Iglesias says. Instead of spending money on a wall, "we need more immigration judges," who can determine those with legitimate cases, he says.

For fiscal year 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement requested $571 million to hire 2,000 immigration officers. The Department of Justice requested $40 million to hire new immigration judges and supporting staff.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration seeks to tighten the "credible fear" guidelines and is turning back some asylum-seekers from Central America to wait in Mexico until their cases can be heard.

Central American migrants hoping to reach the U.S. border take a break Thursday in Acacoyagua, Chiapas State, Mexico. Associated Press
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