GOP in Congress Want to Tweak Asylum Laws to Stop Migrant Influx

April 15, 2019 Updated: April 15, 2019

Several Republican members of Congress plan to introduce bills to change asylum laws to close loopholes used by the growing number of illegal immigrants in the country.

“We’re never going to stop this by just having walls and troops at the border,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in an April 14 Fox News interview. “We have to change our laws so these people stop coming.”

Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he’ll “put together a legislative package” right after the lawmakers return from a two-week recess on April 29. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, discussed a similar proposal in recent media interviews.

The United States has faced an increasing influx of migrants from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which struggle with high levels of poverty and violence.

Since the influx began to intensify in 2012, more than 1.4 million of people from these three countries were caught at the southern border after crossing illegally, with half a million of those having been caught in the past 18 months. About two-thirds of them were children or adults with children.

The migrants usually cross the border illegally, then surrender to authorities and request asylum. For various reasons, they are often released into the interior of the United States to await an immigration court proceeding that usually takes years. While most of their asylum claims ultimately fail, it may take years for them to be tracked down and deported.

Border security officials have specified three changes to the law they would need to rectify the system.

Credible Fear

First, the standard for the initial evaluation of an asylum claim needs to be raised. The current test consists of questioning the migrant on whether he or she has “credible fear” of death or persecution in the country of origin based on religion, political views, sex, or ethnicity.

But human smugglers, and even lawyers working for certain non-profits, are instructing the migrants on what to say in order to pass the test.

Sometimes people from completely different regions would tell the exact same story, according to Ramiro Cordero, Border Patrol Special Operations Supervisor in the El Paso Sector.

“If you want to say that they are being coached to have that story to make an attempt at being the recipients of credible fear—yes,” he said in a prior phone call.

President Donald Trump recently joked about the ease of passing the test.

“The asylum program is a scam,” he told the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas on April 6. “Some of the roughest people you’ve ever seen. People who look like they should be fighting for the UFC. They read a little page given by lawyers that are all over the place. … ‘I am very fearful for my life. I am very worried that I will be accosted if I’m sent back home.’ No, no. He’ll do the accosting.”

Flooding the immigration courts with cases that have little chance of success slows the system down. The backlog stands at more than 850,000 cases and is increasing. Unable to keep so many people in detention, authorities have had to release the migrants with a hope they will show up for their court hearings. Many don’t.

Graham acknowledged the rules need to change.

“Let’s toughen up our asylum standard,” he said. “If 90 percent are failing to meet the [asylum] standard, the [credible fear] standard needs to change.”

Family Detention

Another problem is the 1997 Flores v. Reno settlement and several subsequent court decisions which, among other restrictions, prevent authorities from detaining child illegal aliens beyond 20 days. Since their cases can’t be adjudicated this fast, the children are released with a family member or other guardian. If the children came as a part of a family unit, the whole family gets released.

“The word is out on the street in these countries that if you bring a minor child with you, you’re never going to get deported,” Graham said.

The solution would be to allow the government to detain families somewhat longer, 4–8 weeks, which would give the government enough time to push their cases through the courts, according to acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan.

“If they don’t have a valid claim, we’ll repatriate. If they do, they’ll be released with certainty that they have asylum,” he said during a March 27 press conference in El Paso, Texas, while in his previous role as commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

Repatriating Children

Lastly, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005 needs to change to allow repatriation of children to countries that don’t share a border with the United States, which the law prohibited due to human trafficking concerns.

“For unaccompanied children, we have government partners in the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras—who are ready to take children back and handle that humanely,” McAleenan said. “Those are their citizens they believe they have a responsibility for and we’re not allowed to do that under the law, under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.”

McAleenan and Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, met with several key Democrat lawmakers on April 10 to open talks on immigration issues, The Hill reported. It’s not clear, however, if Democrats would be willing to consider the changes sought by the officials, or if they are, under what conditions.

Top Democrats from the House and Senate Homeland Security committees, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), didn’t respond to requests for comment.

While his negotiators reach out across the aisle, Trump is upping the pressure on the Democrats, saying in an April 15 tweet that “those Illegal Immigrants who can no longer be legally held (Congress must fix the laws and loopholes) will be, subject to Homeland Security, given to Sanctuary Cities and States.” The “sanctuary” jurisdictions limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities and tend to be controlled by Democrats.

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab

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