The House Judiciary Committee has begun looking at reports that Mexican drug cartel members are abusing the U.S. asylum system to bypass regular immigration checks and get into the country, where some are setting up smuggling operations and others engage in the same violent feuds that caused them to flee Mexico in the first place.
In one instance, a woman made a claim of asylum and three months later was apprehended at a Border Patrol checkpoint with more than $1 million in cocaine, according to a memo obtained by the committee that says criminal gangs are exploiting holes in the asylum system.
The memo, viewed by The Washington Times, also details cartel hit-squad members who won access to the U.S. after claiming they feared violence after they "fell out of grace" with their employers.
In another case listed in the memo, two families involved in drug trafficking came to the U.S. claiming "credible fear" of persecution, then began targeting each other once they were here.
"It's outrageous that members of Mexican drug cartels and others involved in illicit activity are so easily able to exploit our asylum laws and live in the U.S. virtually undetected," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.
"Our asylum laws are in place to help individuals who are facing truly serious persecution in their country," he said. "However, dangerous criminals are gaming the system by claiming they have a 'credible fear' of persecution when often they've been the perpetrators of violence themselves."
Homeland Security officials say they screen everyone who makes a credible fear claim and try to weed out those who don't meet the standards, and try to detain those who do but also could be dangers to the community.
The asylum system has come under increasing scrutiny after reports that the number of people making "credible fear" asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border has more than doubled in the past year.
The rising violence from drug cartels has spawned many of the cases, with Mexican nationals saying they fear for their lives because of family ties or even because of where they live.
"Credible fear" claims are based on the potential for someone to be tortured or persecuted if they return to their home country. But according to information received by the Judiciary Committee, some cartel members themselves are making such claims based on their time in the violent world of Mexico's drug wars.
"Intelligence clearly indicates individuals with direct and indirect associations to narcotics trafficking and other illegal activity are now residing in the U.S. under the protective status of [credible fear]. In some cases ongoing actions by these individuals clearly pose a significant threat to the communities in which they now reside," the memo says.
In the case of the woman caught with $1 million worth of drugs, the memo said she was married to someone involved with a smuggling operation in the El Paso, Texas, area.
A call to the U.S. attorney's office in the western district of Texas seeking information on the woman, whom the memo didn't name, wasn't returned Thursday.
The memo, stamped "For Official Use Only" and dated Oct. 2, says it was written by the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats command in the El Paso sector of the border. A Judiciary Committee aide said the memo was obtained from a source within the Homeland Security Department and was circulated within the department.
The memo argues that there isn't enough scrutiny on the front end when someone makes a "credible fear" claim, and said that creates a loophole that can be exploited.
But Peter Boogaard, a spokesman for Homeland Security, said asylum seekers go through multiple background checks before any decision is made, including checks by law enforcement and an interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"Credible fear determinations are dictated by long-standing statute, not an issuance of discretion. The USCIS officer must find that a 'significant possibility' exists that the individual may be found eligible for asylum or withholding of removal. During the credible fear review, USCIS initiates a background check using immigration, national security and criminal databases," he said.
Once an officer determines a "credible fear" of persecution or torture, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reviews the case to determine whether to detail the individual pending a court hearing or whether to parole the person into the country on the admonition of returning for hearings.
"If an individual claiming asylum at the border is deemed to be a threat to public safety or national security, ICE has the authority to keep the individual in detention until their case is heard by an immigration judge," Mr. Boogaard said. "Only a judge can determine asylum eligibility.
"On average, 91 percent of Mexican applicants seeking asylum following a determination that they have credible fear are denied. Individuals who are denied an asylum application are subject to removal from the United States," he said.
Mr. Goodlatte, though, said the law requires most people who raise claims of "credible fear" to be put in mandatory detention. Parole is reserved for special medical emergency cases or humanitarian reasons, or when there is a specific public benefit to being released.
The Obama administration has taken an expansive view of the public benefit section, arguing that unless there is a demonstrable flight risk or apparent danger to the community, those seeking asylum should be released rather than held.
Mr. Goodlatte said that expansive view is dangerous and has led to the problems detailed in the memo. He said his committee "will be closely examining this egregious abuse."
According to the memo, some alien smugglers are using the "credible fear" process as part of their technique for getting illegal immigrants into the U.S.
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