Homeland Security will launch its new asylum policy next week on a limited basis, giving some illegal immigrants another crack at claiming a legal status in the U.S.
The program will be phased in, with just a few hundred people expected to be referred each month at the start, officials said Thursday. Only people already held in detention will be subject to the new policy right now, but the officials promised to “ramp up” in coming months.
The government says its goal is to give migrants more protections and faster decisions, with those who don’t qualify for asylum then eligible to be deported faster.
“As we implement this transformative rule through a phased approach, we will reduce processing times and the years-long immigration court backlog,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.
“Individuals who qualify for asylum will receive protection more swiftly, and those who are not eligible will be promptly removed rather than remaining in the U.S. for years while their cases are pending. We are delivering justice quickly, while also ensuring due process,” he said.
He had finalized the new asylum policy earlier this spring.
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It already faces several lawsuits challenging the legality of the move, brought by GOP-led states.
The asylum system has become the chief loophole for many illegal immigrants to gain a foothold in the U.S. They arrive, are caught, then make dubious asylum claims and are released into the country to await hearings in immigration court.
That process can take up to eight years, Mr. Mayorkas told Congress several weeks ago. He said under the new rules, cases could be completed within a year.
The new plan would give immigration officers at Homeland Security an initial crack at hearing the border asylum cases, and only if they rule against a migrant would the case then go to an immigration judge for a second bite at the apple.
The vast majority of asylum claims fail in the courts right now, but analysts say they expect immigration officers to be more lenient, and for approval rates to rise.
A vote in the Senate on Thursday to block the rule from taking effect failed on a near party-line vote, though some lawmakers were absent and senators expect a re-vote next month.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who is leading one of the legal challenges to the policy, says in his lawsuit that it “will unleash a flood of new asylum claims.”
Mr. Mayorkas has described the asylum policy as one of his answers to the current border chaos. He says reducing the time it takes for migrants to get a ruling on their cases will deliver finality, and those who fail in their claims can be removed.
Opponents say that only works if Homeland Security is willing to detain them while their cases are proceeding. Those who are released often don’t bother to show up for hearings or deportation.
Officials said Thursday that the program will only start with migrants who are being held in detention at two locations in Texas, and who plan to reside in one of six metropolitan areas where the immigration courts will be set up to hear their appeals.
The phased-in approach is necessary because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees the immigration officers, doesn’t have nearly the staff to handle the expected caseload.
USCIS is budgeted for 1,000 officers, but only has 750 on staff, and has rushed to try to hire and train more people.