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April 15, 2014

New York Times Highlights Challenges in Immigration and Asylum Systems

Last week, just after Human Rights First returned from a research trip on asylum issues at the border in the Rio Grande Valley, the New York Times published two pieces exploring the fraught nature of immigration in the United States. While one covered deportation trends and policies, the other story – reported from South Texas—emphasized the trends related to border crossings. It noted an uptick in Central Americans seeking asylum and associated questions about backlogged immigration courts, appearance rates, and detention space.

These stories paint a complicated picture of migration and asylum in the United States and illustrate the need for further research. That’s why we’ve been traveling to the border to meet with government officials, legal service providers, and people making claims for protection.

Among the challenges and trends identified in the New York Times last week, a few were of particular note in light of our research:

  • More information is needed on the increase in credible fear claims. Most discussions about the increase in “credible fear” interviews have not touched on the sharp increase in expedited removal apprehensions. Under expedited removal laws, an individual apprehended at or near the U.S. border is summarily deported without guaranteed review by an immigration judge. The credible fear screening is a mechanism in expedited removal laws meant to prevent the deportation of someone who has a potential claim to protection.  Although there has been an increase in credible fear interviews, as Ginger Thompson and Sarah Cohen noted in their New York Times piece last week, the data they obtained revealed that the last few years have seen a “broadened use of expedited removal proceedings.”

  • Many crossing the border have “very real, legitimate fears,” according to Kimi Jackson of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project. This echoes what we saw and heard about during Human Rights First’s trip and what we see in our own pro bono asylum cases. Sometimes an asylum seeker does not express fear until after they have been initially apprehended. Simply because a fear of return was not expressed immediately to a border agent, often in a potentially overwhelming situation after a traumatizing journey, does not automatically suggest underlying fraud.

  • The system needs more resources. In order to maintain the integrity of our asylum system, every component, especially asylum offices and immigration courts, should be sufficiently funded to adjudicate cases in a timely and effective manner. Asylum officers need the time and ability to conduct prompt credible and reasonable fear screenings in person and, as underscored in the article, immigration judges housed in the Executive Office for Immigration Review need more support staff and judges to address the growing backlog that could encourage abuse. Alternatives to detention, which – compared to detention in jail-like facilities – are a cost-effective and humane tool to monitor appearance and compliance if needed, should also be more robustly funded.

More information and more statistics are needed to truly understand the trends being reported from the southern border. Following our research, Human Rights First will develop in-depth recommendations on how the United States can maintain an asylum system that is fair and rights-respecting.