WASHINGTON—At current levels, close to 1 million people will be apprehended by Border Patrol crossing the southern border this fiscal year.
Of the estimated 1 million, around 650,000 will be family units or unaccompanied minors traveling from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Under current law, almost all of those 650,000 will claim asylum and be released into the country. Going by current percentages provided by the Department of Justice, only 9 percent of Central Americans who pass an initial credible-fear screening at the border will be subsequently granted asylum relief by an immigration judge.
Assuming all 650,000 are Central Americans, that means 58,500 wil be granted asylum, but the more than 590,000 who do not qualify for asylum will stay indefinitely anyway. Only about 2 percent of family units and unaccompanied minors are deported.
“What is happening is counter-intuitive to the rule of law and defies the basic principles of sovereignty,” said Mark Morgan, former Border Patrol chief under President Barack Obama, at a Senate hearing April 4. “We’re letting in tens of thousands of people to this country every day who we know virtually nothing about.”
He said the sheer number of those who are not granted asylum debunks the “uniformed outrage” that migrants from Northern Triangle countries are fleeing from extreme violence or persecution.
“It’s not complicated—they are being pulled here for two reasons: economic equality and family reunification,” Morgan said. “Neither are valid claims under the asylum process. Nevertheless, we continue to facilitate an abuse of our laws and the generosity of our country.”
Although poverty and crime are widespread in Central America, those conditions are not part of asylum law criteria.
“Our asylum laws are meant to protect those who, because of characteristics like race, religion, nationality, or political opinions, cannot find protection in their home countries,” former Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Oct. 12, 2017.
“They were never intended to provide asylum to all those who fear generalized violence, crime, personal vendettas, or a lack of job prospects.”
From 2009 to 2016, credible-fear claims at the border increased from approximately 3,000 cases to more than 69,000. And the immigration court backlog for all immigration cases sits at more than 800,000 cases—quadruple that in 2009.
Migrants know they will be quickly released into the United States if they bring a child, or are a minor, and they cross illegally and seek out Border Patrol. Often, migrants are coached by smugglers on what to say to pass the credible-fear screening upon entry.
“Most of these family members we’re allowing in, we can’t properly vet. We’re letting in tens thousands a day and we have no idea who they really are.”
Two weeks ago, Border Patrol started releasing thousands of family units almost immediately after apprehension as detention facilities reached untenable levels of over overcapacity.
Border Patrol has also moved to allow some of its agents to conduct credible-fear screenings, which would narrow the time in detention before release, alleviating some pressure on detention centers.
Some migrants are being returned to Mexico to wait out their asylum claim, but that program is still small and in pilot mode.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has called the situation a “near-systemwide meltdown.”
Homeland Security officials have said repeatedly that the only way to fundamentally and immediately address the crisis is for Congress to fix two legal loopholes that are allowing for those with meritless asylum claims to be admitted into the country and stay indefinitely.
The Flores Settlement Agreement was amended in 2015 to require the release of minors within 20 days of apprehension. That change was the beginning of the surge in family units.
“Smugglers and traffickers know that our laws make it easier to enter the country and stay if you show up as a ‘family,’” Nielsen wrote on Twitter on March 29. “So they are using children as a ‘free ticket’ into America and are even using kids multiple times—recycling them—to help more aliens get into the United States.”
The second law, the Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act, has disparate conditions attached that allow for the immediate return of Mexican and Canadian minors who are not victims of trafficking, but not those from any other country. Unaccompanied minors are transferred to Health and Human Services, whose secretary, Alex Azar, said on April 4 that the agency currently had 12,340 children in its care.
Morgan said during his tenure in 2016, around 15 percent of Border Patrol agents’ resources were being diverted to the humanitarian crisis at that time, which was predominantly an influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America. Now, Border Patrol agents are expending up to 40 percent of their resources on the humanitarian side—including handling medical emergencies, paperwork, transportation, and housing.
“We are experiencing a crisis to the magnitude never experienced in modern times,” he said.