Lately, I’ve been worrying that asylum might become a victim of its own success. Thanks to lawyers pushing the law, the number and categories of people eligible for asylum has increased pretty dramatically: Victims of FGM and domestic violence, LGBT individuals, certain victims of crimes. This is a good thing, as many lives have been saved. But it has started to attract the attention of immigrant restrictionists, who think the asylum system is too generous. Could the tide be shifting? Might we be on the verge of a backlash?
There’s precedent for such fear dating back to antiquity. When the Roman Empire conquered Greece, the various city-states had a well-developed system of temple asylum. In short, if you were a slave fleeing abuse, you could go for protection to a Greek temple. Over time, the types of people who could claim protection in Greek temples expanded, so that basically anyone, including rebels and common criminals, could find refuge in a temple. The law-and-order Romans would have none of it. In 14 AD, Emperor Tiberius ordered the temples to produce evidence of their right to offer asylum. Most temples could not do so, and so Tiberius’s little bureaucratic maneuver essentially ended asylum in the Greek city-states. So much for the history lesson.
Late last month, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), and Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) announced that they would be holding hearings on asylum and credible fear “abuse” by people arriving in the U.S. via Mexico. The press announcement does not sound promising:
It’s outrageous that members of Mexican drug cartels and others involved in illicit activity are so easily able to exploit our asylum laws and live in the U.S. virtually undetected. Our asylum laws are in place to help individuals who are facing truly serious persecution in their countries. However, dangerous criminals are gaming the system by claiming they have a ‘credible fear’ of persecution when often they’ve been the perpetrators of violence themselves. Their claims almost always get rubberstamped by the Obama Administration and once these individuals are in the U.S., the illegal activity doesn’t stop.
Unfortunately, it appears the Obama Administration is compromising our national security and the safety of our communities for its political agenda. The House Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing soon to closely examine this egregious abuse to see what can be done to put an end to it.
Over the last couple months, I’ve written pretty extensively about the influx of asylum seekers at the border, and there certainly seem to be issues that require attention. That’s why it’s disappointing to see such an overtly political description of the upcoming hearings. Hopefully, the hearings themselves will be more constructive (yes, for some reason, I am feeling unusually optimistic – maybe its The Season).
Not that anyone has asked, but I thought I would raise some issues that the Committee might explore:
- We need accurate statistics about who is seeking asylum and why: It is very difficult to know who seeks asylum, who receives it, who receives other relief, and who is denied. One problem is that the two agencies that track asylum cases–DOJ and DHS–use different metrics for calculating their numbers. Another problem is that there are no stats available on people who receive Withholding of Removal and Torture Convention relief (two benefits that are similar, though inferior, to asylum). Congress should mandate better record keeping on asylum cases: Where do asylum seekers come from? What is the basis for their grants or denials? How many are detained? How many leave of their own volition after receiving a denial? How many are deported? How many cases are re-opened for fraud or due to criminal convictions? Such information will allow us to improve our policy-making and will hopefully lead to a better and more secure system.
- We need to make some decisions about how to treat asylum applicants at the borders: There has been a significant increase in asylum applicants arriving at our Southern border. Currently, most are detained and–if they pass a credible fear interview–they are released with a date to return to Immigration Court. I have not seen specific examples of individuals who have entered the U.S. in this manner and then committed bad acts. But given the number of arrivals, the possibility for this to happen seems pretty high. So do we detain these asylum seekers until their cases are heard? Such an approach makes it much more difficult for them to prepare their asylum cases. It is also very expensive. Should each person be fitted with an ankle bracelet or some other tracking device? If we had more accurate data about asylum seekers, perhaps we could better answer these questions.
- We must decide how to treat people fleeing persecution where that persecution is not based on a protected ground: Many people arriving at the Southern border face real harm from gangs, cartels, and criminals. Many others face serious harm due to sexual violence. Often, such people do not fall neatly into one of the five protected categories. Most will not qualify for lesser forms of relief, such as the Convention Against Torture. So what to do with them? Of course, we could simply deport them as we are not obligated by our international agreements to protect them. But sending innocent people to their deaths seems not in keeping with our national values (or any other notion of morality). Could something be done for such people without creating an incentive for everyone South of the border to come to the United States?
- We need to plan ahead to deal with a potentially large refugee flow from Mexico: For years, we’ve been hearing discussion about the possibility of large refugee flows from Mexico due to the violence there. If this happens, our current asylum system will likely not handle the volume. Perhaps we need a contingency plan for how to deal with such refugees. Faced with refugee crises, other countries have created temporary camps for people, where they can stay until it is safe to return (though often that takes decades or longer, and then there is no where to return to). Maybe such a model would be appropriate if the situation in Mexico deteriorates further. Or maybe some type of TPS would be more appropriate. In any case, it seems to me that we can start thinking about this now, so that we are more prepared in case of a humanitarian disaster.
There is obviously more to say about these topics, but–since it is the season of miracles–I continue to hope that the Judiciary Committee will address these and other important issues related to our asylum system.