The Trump administration’s cruelties must be rejected. But the system is overwhelmed. A former top immigration official offers solutions.
Surprised by vehement public reaction, President Donald Trump has decreed an end to the policy of separating arriving asylum seekers from their children. But what now? Not what will Trump do — his latest pronouncements simply up the ante on mean-spiritedness, with little clarity on a specific policy direction. But what asylum reforms should progressives push for to build a humane, workable, and sustainable program?
The policy problem is real. The flow of asylum seekers from Central America has not noticeably abated even during the administration’s imposition of cruelties. The current adjudication system has been overwhelmed — both the asylum officers in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the immigration judges in the Department of Justice (DOJ). Claims in both venues, from all nationalities, have seen sharp rises over the past five years, and backlogs have mushroomed.
DHS, which was keeping up with asylum claims as recently as 2011, now has more than 300,000 pending cases. Immigration judges, whose ranks number roughly 350 at present, have an astounding backlog of 700,000 cases. The resulting picture of dysfunction provides continual fodder for anti-immigration demagogues.
Progressives need to pay close attention to that last observation, because we are in danger of overplaying the righteous reaction to the horrors of child separation. Our nation needs to remain firmly committed to the institution of political asylum. But opportunistic or abusive claims are unfortunately numerous in the current caseload, particularly among people who seek asylum after having been in the United States for a while.
And any realistic migration management regime will have to keep in its toolbox the selective detention of asylum seekers, especially in times of high influx. We need to figure out what form our detention and release system will take.
So, yes, we need to call attention to the cruelty of the Trump administration’s policies. But we also need to bring the system back under control. Control is a precondition for regaining durable public support for the institution of political asylum in a world characterized by unprecedented migration pressures. Extreme-right politicians are exaggerating the scale of illegal immigration and unwarranted asylum seeking, and not just in the US. Getting this right will help take away from the authoritarians one of their most potent rhetorical weapons: immigration alarmism.
A precedent for a solution
Fortunately, we do have a solid model for how to repair our system: Today’s overload is surprisingly similar to an administrative meltdown faced in the early 1990s. Regulatory and operational reforms in 1995 brought that asylum situation under control, while preserving due process and avoiding widespread detention. The result was 15 years of reasonably efficient operation and blessedly few hot political controversies over asylum. We can rebuild that system; doing so won’t resolve all the problems we face, but it is an indispensable ingredient.
We still face some tough questions — notably about how far our asylum system can go in protecting against private violence in Central America, including from gangs and abusive family members. As a polity with a proud history of providing refuge, we face some hard choices. But however those choices are resolved, we can and should immediately expand aid designed to reduce violence in the source countries. That would go some way toward reducing refugee flows.
How our two-track asylum system works
To understand the history of reform successes and failures, we need first a map of the rather complex structure of agencies involved in asylum processing, and of the two primary pipelines by which applications are received. Bear with me, because the differences, though technical, are important as we think about reforms.
A person already in the United States, legally or illegally, who fears persecution back in the home country, can file for asylum directly with the Department of Homeland Security. These “affirmative claims,” so-called because the person takes the initiative to file without any enforcement action pending, are initially heard in an office interview conducted by expert asylum officers, housed in eight regional offices.
Based on the completed application and a nonadversarial office interview, asylum officers can grant or deny asylum, but when asylum is denied, they have no authority to issue a removal order.
That step requires an immigration judge — a specially selected DOJ attorney, appointed by the attorney general, who conducts removal proceedings. Until 1995, there was no routine for putting unsuccessful affirmative applicants into immigration court. It was up to the district field office of the immigration agency to file charges; many offices didn’t see these cases as a priority, at a time when the enforcement system had far lower funding than today. If the district office did serve a charging document, the person could renew the asylum claim in immigration court, and the judge would decide it afresh.
Now for the second main pipeline. People who are already in removal proceedings when they first seek asylum — people apprehended after crossing the border, for instance, or picked up by DHS after a local arrest for disorderly conduct — cannot file with the asylum office. Instead, they present their applications directly to the immigration court. A successful claim there constitutes a defense to removal; hence these applications are known as “defensive claims.”
For both defensive claimants and those affirmative claimants who have renewed their claims in court, the immigration judge considers the case through a formal courtroom procedure. He or she can grant asylum, but if asylum is denied, the judge normally issues a removal order — the kind of document needed for DHS to put the applicant on a bus or plane home (though appeal opportunities exist).
Border cases, as mentioned, are almost all heard as defensive claims, assuming applicants pass an initial, speedy “credible fear” screening done by an asylum officer, which is meant to weed out clearly meritless cases. (Over the past eight years, between 15 and 30 percent have been screened out this way.)
In the 1990s the system was also overwhelmed. We brought it back under control.
Back to the dysfunction I mentioned in the early 1990s. The expert corps of asylum officers, which had been created only in 1990, was overwhelmed by an accelerating volume of asylum claims, many of them containing near-identical boilerplate stories about threats, mostly crafted by high-volume “immigration consultants.” At the time, the regulations provided that nearly all asylum applicants received authorization to work in the US shortly after filing.
That created an incentive to file a false asylum claim — as did the slim chance, during that period, that an applicant would end up in immigration court. The system’s obvious disorder and vulnerability to escalating fraud worried refugee assistance organizations, who rightly feared that Congress, then beginning to consider tough immigration enforcement bills (ultimately enacted in 1996), would impose draconian limitations on asylum unless the administration brought the situation under control.
Government agencies worked closely with NGOs to analyze the situation and draw up a balanced solution. (I worked on the design and implementation of the reforms as a consultant to the Justice Department and later as general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a.k.a. INS.) Two key changes in asylum regulations were the result. The first made it virtually automatic that affirmative asylum claimants whose claims were rejected by the asylum officer would be placed into removal proceedings.
Under the 1995 regs, when applicants return to the asylum office a few weeks after their interview to get the result, nearly all receive either an asylum grant or a fully effective charging document placing them in removal proceedings, normally with a specific date to appear in immigration court.
Second, the reform decoupled the act of filing for asylum from work authorization. The applicant would get that benefit from the asylum officer only if granted asylum. Those applicants who failed and were referred on to immigration court would similarly have to prove their asylum claim on the merits to gain permission to work.
But as a mechanism to minimize hardship and induce timely decisions, applicants would also receive work authorization if the immigration judge did not resolve the case within six months of the initial filing. (Applicants could also request delays, for example to gather more evidence, but such a request would suspend the running of the “asylum clock” and thus extend the six-month deadline for the issuance of work authorization).
To meet that processing deadline, the Clinton administration secured funding to double the number of immigration judges, from roughly 100 to 200, and also built up the asylum officer corps. New target timetables were established, and the new system met them with few exceptions: An asylum officer decision within 60 days, and an immigration judge decision within six months from initial filing (the latter also applies to purely defensive claims).
Finally, to maximize the immediate impact, the asylum offices and immigration courts adopted a last-in, first-out scheduling policy for judging claims. That sent the signal that new bogus claims would not slip through and get work authorization under the six-month rule, simply because of case backlogs. The older filers, already carrying a work authorization card, would take lower priority.
These reforms dramatically changed the calculus of potential affirmative applicants. Weak or opportunistic filings would no longer lead to work authorization; additionally, they would mean a quick trip to immigration court and a likely removal order. People responded to the new incentives. Asylum filings with the immigration authorities declined from more than 140,000 in 1993 to a level between 27,000 and 50,000 for virtually every year from 1998 through 2013. That annual filing rate was a manageable level, logistically and politically.
Congress had been poised to crack down on asylum in 1996 as part of a general tightening of immigration laws but, impressed by the already visible reductions, rejected most of the restrictive asylum proposals and instead made the administrative changes permanent by enacting them into law.
The seeds of the current crisis were planted around 2012, in a period of budgetary contraction. Neither Congress nor the executive branch appreciated how crucial it was to reach decisions in immigration court within six months and thereby prevent work authorization to unqualified asylum applicants. That had been the system’s main (and highly effective) deterrent to opportunistic, weak, or bogus claims. Hiring slowed even as caseloads and duties expanded, including the beginnings of the Central American surge. As more and more applicants began to receive work authorization without an asylum grant on the merits, affirmative applications poured in.
With the added filings, immigration court docketing fell further behind, reaching four-year delays in some locations. Much as in 1993, it was a vicious circle. Unscrupulous “consultants” could once again guarantee work authorization to their clients based just on filing, albeit after six months, with no immigration judge hearing expected for years. In 2017, affirmative filings with the asylum office climbed back above 140,000.
A 1995-style fix today would help us mainly to deter weak affirmative asylum claims. But it would still be quite relevant to the Central American applicants reaching our borders, even though they will normally file defensively. This is because so much of the paralyzing immigration court backlog stems from the massive increase in affirmative applicant numbers over the past five years. Reducing overall intake is central to getting both tracks of the asylum process under control.
Concrete steps to fix the problems
There are four primary components in a realistic strategy to restore our asylum machinery to health. We should:
1) Rebuild the capacity for prompt asylum decisions by strategically deploying existing staff and urgently adding more. It is obvious that the system needs a major influx of new asylum officers and immigration judges. Hiring is underway and budgets are growing significantly, though not fast enough. The administration still feels a need for more dramatic immediate deterrents, apparently believing that a full catch-up to the existing caseload will take years.
But a here-and-now impact can be had by following the last-in, first-out rule that served the US so well in 1995. Rejection of new filers is more important as a deterrent than processing old cases. In fact, DHS’s asylum office returned to last-in, first-out scheduling five months ago, and affirmative claims have already dropped by 30 percent.
This excellent change will not have the needed impact until the immigration courts complete comparable revisions to their scheduling system and thus assure the six-month decision timetable. We also need to be systematic about removing unsuccessful asylum seekers with a final order.
This would return us to a system where prompt denial on the merits after a fair hearing, not cruelty to applicants, serves as the main deterrent to weak or abusive claims.
2) Make smart use of detention, including family detention as needed, plus alternative measures to avoid flight. Some critics hope that the public revulsion against child separation will lead to ending virtually all detention of asylum seekers. Others theorize that Trump’s planners adopted the separation strategy just to get courts to end constraints they now impose on family detention — because family detention would look so much kinder than separation.
Detention, however, is an inescapable part of the immigration enforcement process, at least when people first arrive at the border and claim asylum. (It’s also essential later, to facilitate or carry out removals of those with a final order.) The judicious use of detention can help reassure skittish publics in times of truly high flow of asylum seekers.
In such times, centralized facilities housing asylum seekers also hold other potential benefits, as was recognized in a 1981 report by a blue-ribbon commission on immigration reform, chaired by Father Theodore Hesburgh from the University of Notre Dame. (The Hesburgh commission issued its report a year after the Mariel boatlift from Cuba brought 125,000 asylum seekers to US shores within a few months.)
Such facilities provide a centralized location for prompt asylum interviews and court hearings. Run properly, which requires constant and committed monitoring, they also can facilitate regular and efficient ongoing access to counsel — particularly when, as is typical in a high-influx situation, most representation comes from organized pro-bono efforts.
The Trump administration has sent unclear and confusing signals about its overall plans while now trying to persuade courts to allow more room for family detention. As a matter of policy, we need to keep family detention available in the toolbox but we should not see it as an early or primary option — especially since the administration has not exhausted other methods, and the Central American flow is not as massive as officials paint it.
Critics today often argue that detention is unnecessary, pointing to high attendance rates by asylum seekers at court hearings. That observation is true, but incomplete. A well-functioning system needs released respondents to show up not just for hearings where a good thing might happen, but also for removal if they lose their asylum cases.
Good data are not available, but intermittent government snapshot reports tend to find that fewer than a sixth of the nondetained are actually removed after the issuance of a final removal order. Policymakers and advocates who want to reduce the use of detention need to attend to that latter statistic, and improve it.
To be sure, detention should not be used routinely. Alternatives to detention — such as intensive release supervision or ankle-bracelet monitoring — are generally more cost-effective. When actual detention is employed, conditions of confinement must be humane and must fully accommodate access to counsel. The Obama administration made headway toward those ends, including creating better family facilities.
3) Think hard about the realistic range of refugee protection, and be more rigorous about “internal protection alternatives.” Advocates for asylum claimants from Central America today have been working to expand the conceptual boundaries of protected refugee classes. Few of those applicants are claiming classic forms of persecution — by an oppressive government, based on the target’s race or religion or political opinion.
A great many claims today are based on domestic violence or risks from murderous criminal gangs, in the context of ineffectual government. Our whole system faces a challenge to determine whether and how such claims fit within the refugee laws and treaties.
The asylum seekers’ cases are highly sympathetic, but they also prompt concerns about figuring out workable boundary lines on any such protection commitment. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a highly restrictive ruling in June. It held that private crimes, including gang retribution and domestic violence, can rarely serve as the basis for a valid asylum claim. Expect a wide variety of reactions from reviewing courts over coming months and years.
But while that interpretive struggle proceeds, an immediate practical step can be taken to alleviate the dilemma. Adjudicators need to pay more systematic attention to the availability of what are known as “internal protection alternatives.” Asylum applicants who can find reasonable safety within the home country, even at the cost of moving to a new city or region — for example, because that region has a good network of domestic violence shelters — should be required to return to those regions, rather than relocate to the US.
Though this “internal protection alternatives” concept is already part of US and international law, it is understandable why many people balk at taking a firm line on it. The applicant would almost surely face lower risks in the United States than back in the home country, and real hardships can be incurred by moving to a new city where the person may not know anyone.
But that objection has to be kept in perspective. We are talking about protection in another part of one’s homeland, for someone who has already shown the resourcefulness to venture thousands of miles to a distant country, with an unfamiliar culture and language. Asylum should not be thought of as a prize for a person who has endured harm or threats, no matter how much sympathy or admiration he or she may deserve for weathering that past. Asylum is a forward-looking last-resort type of measure to shelter those who cannot find adequate protection other ways.
4) Work with other countries to address root causes and expand potential refuge elsewhere. This brings us directly to the fourth primary measure, of particular relevance to the Central American crisis. The United States should greatly expand assistance, through bilateral aid, multilateral efforts, or the funding of NGO initiatives, toward reducing the violence that sends people in search of protection.
It’s easier in theory to address root causes when the threat is private violence, since the US can expect support rather than resistance from the government. But real effectiveness on the ground demands ongoing diplomacy, implementation skill, vigilance against corruption, and, above all, consistent funding year to year.
In Central America, past US assistance has had some visible impact in helping to reduce gang violence and murder rates. The Central American Regional Security Initiative has provided more than $1.4 billion to this effort since its start in 2008. The Trump administration, with typical short-sightedness, is moving to cut this funding. And Vice President Mike Pence’s meeting with heads of state in Guatemala City last week was a giant missed opportunity. According to press accounts, he basically just badgered those governments to stop sending people.
That message would have been so much more effective toward changing conditions on the ground if it had been joined with significantly increased aid for the security initiative. We should also expand funding to enhance police responsiveness to domestic violence in Central America and to support shelter networks.
These steps are obviously worthy in their own right, helping potential victims of all sorts, not just potential migrants. But they also can reduce the felt need to migrate and generate a more extensive menu of “internal protection alternatives” to be considered by adjudicators ruling on asylum claims.
The Obama administration also had some success in working with Mexico to discourage dangerous unauthorized travel, through information campaigns and interdiction — and to open up a modest possibility that Central Americans could find refuge in Mexico itself. President Trump’s unending insults directed at our southern neighbor have torpedoed such cooperation, but a future administration should revive it.
Revulsion at the current administration’s border practices is fully deserved. And the current administration exaggerates the crisis. But in an era where tolerance for asylum protection has become a politically scarce resource, we still need realistic and determined asylum reform measures in order to restore public confidence that migration is subject to control.
Our country’s 1995 experience shows such a change is possible, while retaining a firm commitment to refugee protection. Repeating that success will require well-targeted funding and tough-minded administrative resourcefulness to succeed.
David A. Martin is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia School of Law. He served as general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1995 through 1997, and as principal deputy general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security, 2009 through 2010.
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