The U.S. Asylum System in Crisis: Charting a Way Forward
Each year, the U.S. asylum system offers protection to thousands of persecuted individuals. Yet the system has reached a crisis point, the result of a confluence of factors that have led to a major backlog of cases, with many applicants waiting years for a decision. This slowdown both harms those eligible for protection and invites abuse, with some claims filed to secure the right to remain and work legally in the United States while awaiting long-off adjudication.
Amid rising numbers of asylum claims, the Trump administration has taken a number of actions to narrow access to humanitarian protection in the United States. These include largely eliminating gang and domestic violence as grounds for asylum and introducing a “zero-tolerance” approach to border enforcement that entails prosecuting all first-time border crossers, including adult asylum seekers, for illegal entry.
This report takes a step back to examine the factors that have brought the U.S. asylum system to this crisis point—from regional migration dynamics that are changing the profile of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, to inefficiencies in affirmative and defensive asylum processes. Based on this analysis and lessons learned from the mid-1990s reform of the asylum system, the authors propose common-sense steps that can be implemented now to get the system back on track. This multipronged approach includes measures to help make asylum workflows more strategic and effective, resolve cases in a timely fashion, deter abuses, and strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries to better manage humanitarian flows through the region.
II. The U.S. Asylum System and Its Prior Reforms
Core Principles of the 1990s Reforms
III. Asylum Pathways and the Surge of Applications
A. Affirmative Asylum Caseload before USCIS
B. Defensive Asylum Caseload before EOIR
C. Recent Caseload Management Actions
D. Other Asylum Policies Introduced by the Trump Administration
IV. The Regional Context: Violence in Central America and Its Impact on the U.S. Asylum System
A. Violence in Home States
B. Internal Displacement
C. Countries of Asylum in the Region
D. Protection Concerns upon Return
E. Regional Responses
V. Recommendations for Revitalizing the Asylum System
A. Restoring Timeliness
B. Mobilizing Regional Cooperation to Address Regional Challenges