The government is making headway on the asylum backlog for the first time in years, clearing more cases in May than it received, as officials finally think they have hit on ways to tamp down on people abusing the system as a backdoor method of illegal immigration.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services took in 7,757 cases last month, but completed 7,959 cases.
The success came on both sides of the ledger. New cases have been cut nearly in half when compared to the peak years during the Obama administration, while the number of cases closed more than doubled compared to the Obama years.
And those achievements came even before the Justice Department’s decision this week to tighten standards for asylum. That move should speed USCIS’s ability to reduce a backlog that’s reached nearly 320,000 cases, as would-be illegal immigrants figured ways to use the asylum system as a loophole to gain a foothold in the U.S.
“Asylum and ‘credible fear’ claims have skyrocketed across the board in recent years largely because individuals know they can exploit a broken system to enter the U.S., avoid removal, and remain in the country,” said Michael Bars, a spokesman for the agency.
Asylum is the protection given to people already on U.S. soil who say they fear being sent back home. Refugees are people who make that request from outside the U.S.
In recent years the number of asylum-seekers has soared, with illegal immigrants from Central America in particular turning to the asylum system. They say they’re fleeing poor conditions back home. Security experts say they’re exploiting a loophole-filled U.S. system to avoid being deported.
In 2011, before the surge of Central Americans took hold, USCIS ended the year with fewer than 10,000 cases pending. By the end of 2015 the backlog was more than 125,000 cases, it leapt to 233,000 at the end of 2016, and topped 300,000 late last year.
Someone who lodges an asylum claim at the border must clear an initial “credible fear” screening by saying he would be in danger if sent home. It’s a low bar that most meet.
Take the recent migrant caravan, most of whose members said they were claiming asylum. As of June 1 USCIS had reviewed 357 of their cases, and had granted positive credible fear decisions in 337 of them — a 94 percent success rate. Among the broader population, credible fear approval rates hover above 75 percent.
From there, the applicants are supposed to pursue their asylum claims with USCIS or with the Executive Office of Immigration Review. But officials say as many as half of them won’t pursue those claims — particularly if they’ve already been released into the U.S. and can disappear into the shadows.
Of those who do pursue cases, most won’t be approved.
The Washington Times reached out to several immigrant-rights groups to run the backlog numbers by them, but didn’t receive comments.
More generally, though, administration critics say they believe the government has become too hawkish in doling out asylum denials, preventing people with potentially valid claims from having a chance to make their case.
“We don’t know for sure, because none of the agencies have responded. But we hear that parents are going to court in mass trials and having their asylum claims denied – not heard, but denied — and then the parents are deported,” Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, said in a speech on the floor of the U.S. House this week.
The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, released an analysis this week arguing the administration is making it tougher to claim asylum on the front end, and pressing for faster decisions on the back end, which the analysts said lead to errors and an increased risk of deporting people who should have received asylum.
Administration critics were further enraged this week after Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling that domestic violence or fear of gangs is not, on its own, enough of a reason to be granted asylum.
Mr. Sessions said the U.S. asylum system isn’t a solution to rough conditions across the globe, but rather a special protection for people facing persecution by a government, or people whose governments are essentially endorsing the persecution by looking the other way.
Immigrant-rights advocates and congressional Democrats said that will mean a “death sentence” for some women living in abusive relationships or children in dangerous neighborhoods in Central America.
USCIS, though, says the changes will bring clarity to a system in need of firm guidance about how far asylum protections can be stretched.
“The attorney general’s decision will be implemented as soon as possible,” said Mr. Bars, the agency spokesman.
USCIS officials credited several changes for this year’s successes in controlling the backlog.
In January the agency reversed an Obama-era policy that focused on the oldest cases, and instead went to a last-in-first-out, or LIFO, approach that makes quick decisions on people showing up at the borders or lodging claims in the interior right now. LIFO helped cut a backlog in the 1990s, and it’s already making a dent now, officials said, by changing the incentives.
Under the Obama approach, someone who showed up demanding asylum might have waited two years for a first interview. During that time they could apply for a work permit, giving them a foothold in the U.S.
With the new LIFO policy applicants are getting their first interview in three weeks. And since most people interviewed are ineligible, and can be put into deportation proceedings once their claims are rejected, it’s discouraging those who had been taking advantage of the system, the agency says.
The agency has also more than doubled its team of asylum officers over the last five years, to nearly 700, and has borrowed another 100 people from the refugee caseload — similar work — to help on the asylum backlog.
USCIS says about a quarter of the backlog are people who know they don’t qualify for asylum, and want to get rejected. They feel they have claims they want to make before an immigration judge, but the only way to get a day in court is to lose their asylum claim and be put into deportation proceedings, where they can argue their other case.
USCIS has come up with a method for trying to identify and clear those people through faster.