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Amid Rising Asylum Claims, Growing Backlogs & Harsh Policy Responses, MPI Report Offers First Steps to Repairing a U.S. Asylum System in Crisis
Press Release
Thursday, September 27, 2018

Amid Rising Asylum Claims, Growing Backlogs & Harsh Policy Responses, MPI Report Offers First Steps to Repairing a U.S. Asylum System in Crisis

WASHINGTON – Faced with a surge in asylum claims, huge backlogs and the resulting likelihood of misuse of the asylum system, the Trump administration has acted to deter new arrivals and narrow access to humanitarian protection. Among its tactics: Largely eliminating gang and domestic violence as grounds for protection and advancing zero-tolerance prosecution policies that resulted in the separation of more than 2,500 children from their parents.

But there is a different way forward, as two of the key officials who presided over the last reform of the U.S. asylum system, in the mid-1990s, outline in a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report, The U.S. Asylum System in Crisis: Charting a Way Forward.

Former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner Doris Meissner, former INS General Counsel T. Alexander Aleinikoff and their co-author Faye Hipsman argue that timeliness and fairness in asylum decision-making are the proven ways to both provide protection and discourage unfounded applications. They lay out a set of initial steps the administration could take to begin to repair the system without sacrificing longstanding U.S. commitments to protect vulnerable individuals.

Among them: Rebalancing the Southwest border workload between the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Asylum Division and the immigration courts housed in the Justice Department. Currently, after asylum officers determine an applicant has a credible fear of persecution, the case is referred to immigration court where it languishes for years, to the detriment of the individual and the system. Allowing asylum officers to fully adjudicate these cases would represent a significant efficiency and keep tens of thousands of cases annually from adding to the immigration courts’ already massive backlog. Defensive asylum requests represent about 30 percent of the record 746,000 cases pending in the immigration courts.

The report lays out other measures to make asylum workflows more strategic and effective, deter abuses and strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries to better manage humanitarian flows through the region. The recommendations draw from a detailed examination of the metrics underpinning the asylum system, as well as insights from senior government officials and key stakeholders.

The authors trace the confluence of factors that turned a timely, fair and well-managed asylum system into one where outcomes take years, its integrity harmed by perverse incentives that encourage some applicants to file weak claims to secure the right to stay and work in the country while awaiting their case outcome.

Regional dynamics have played a strong role in shaping current trends: About a decade ago, about 1 of every 100 border crossers was an unaccompanied child or asylum seeker in search of protection. Today, that share is 1 in 3, amid extreme insecurity in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

“The U.S. asylum system urgently needs to be retooled to enable it to function effectively once again. However, instead of turning to severe and unworkable measures, history should be the guide,” the authors write. “The system has been in crisis before, with even larger caseloads and more stubborn operational challenges, and it was revamped to work.”

Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/us-asylum-system-crisis-charting-way-forward.