Beyond the Wall Recommendation: Fix the Badly Broken Asylum System in the United States

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The Trump administration carried out a sustained attack on long-accepted asylum laws and norms. The damage is deep, and will take time to undo.

There is a rights-respecting way forward, to ensure orderly, safe migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Improving the U.S. asylum system requires getting serious about effective alternatives to detention; and ensuring migrants receive due process in immigration court.

1.) Getting serious about alternatives to detention, especially family case management.

The United States continues to detain a high number of asylum seekers, including some families, while they await their asylum hearings. Years of research documents that migrant detention further traumatizes people fleeing violence and persecution, while restricting their right to due process.

Detention should always be a last resort and should not apply to families under any circumstances. Evidence-based alternatives to detention programs should be expanded. Family case management systems, in which caseworkers frequently keep in touch with asylum-seeking families, have maintained incredibly high compliance rates for a fraction of the cost. In fact, an ICE-run family case management pilot program that cost $36 a day reached a 99 percent compliance rate before it was shut down by the Trump administration in 2017. In comparison, ICE estimates it will spend $295.94 per family in detention per day in 2020.

2.) Ensuring asylum seekers and migrants receive due process and a timely hearing in immigration court.

As of September 2019, there were more than 1 million cases in the immigration court system, and only 395 judges available to hear these cases. Before “Remain in Mexico,” a family that arrived at the border and received a notice to appear in court for their asylum hearing would often be assigned a court date nearly four years into the future.

Furthermore, whether an asylum seeker’s claim gets accepted or not is highly dependent on which immigration court hears their case. The asylum success rate for the San Francisco immigration court between FY 2014 and FY 2019 is 70.5 percent. In El Paso, the rate for the same time period is 5.9 percent. It’s clear that immigration judges hold enormous influence over asylum-seekers’ future.

This arbitrary and overcrowded system is an untenable situation, and it undermines the due process of people applying for asylum in the United States. To address the backlog and long wait times, the United States must prioritize the hiring and training of more immigration judges and staff, while not pressing judges to reach quick decisions on sensitive and complicated asylum cases. In order to ensure due process and transparency for asylum-seekers, we must make immigration courts an independent agency not beholden to political appointments and expand access to legal counsel for asylum seekers.

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The United States can play a critical role in addressing the significant migration flow patterns and challenges in the region with policies that effectively govern our borders and uphold our basic values.

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