The White House is moving forward on a plan to have Department of Homeland Security asylum officers take over cases on the southern United States border, a change that would shift future asylum cases out of backlogged immigration courts.
The Biden administration's measure is one of a series of moves to speed up consideration of asylum claims, steps it says would reduce the backlog and make the immigration system more orderly and fair.
As NPR reported this spring, the asylum officer move has been under consideration since before President Biden took office.
"The administration is committed to fairly and efficiently considering asylum claims. Asylum and other legal migration pathways should remain available to those seeking protection. But those not seeking protection or who don't qualify will be returned to their country of origin," the White House said in a statement Tuesday.
Currently, asylum-seekers are turned away at the border because of Title 42, a public health order put in place by the Trump administration during the pandemic. But normally, asylum-seekers who can show what's known as "credible fear" are allowed to enter the country and await a court date, which can take years.
The new measure would vastly expand the number of officers who can determine whether a migrant at the southern U.S. border is eligible for asylum.
Right now, there are only about 540 immigration judges handling nearly 1.3 million cases.
"The system that we have now, which was built decades ago during the Cold War, is not functioning," said Cecilia Muñoz, who served as former President Barack Obama's top immigration adviser and worked on the Biden transition team.
"The notion that you can wait so long before you even have a chance to make your case, it kind of makes a mockery of what it is that we're trying to do," she said.
The plan the Biden administration is pursuing is based largely on the one authored by Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of what was then called Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration. Biden endorsed the plan when he was running for president.
"The facts on the ground right now are if you get here, you'll be able to stay," Meissner said. "That's not what our system allows for. That is not to say that people are not leaving for good reasons. There are reasons why people leave that are very sympathetic, but that does not necessarily translate into their being eligible for asylum status in the United States."
The number of pending cases in the immigration court system has exploded over the past decade, from more than 262,000 in 2010 to 1.26 million in 2020.
Currently asylum officers on the border handle credible fear decisions, but then refer the cases to immigration courts.
But Meissner, who is now at the Migration Policy Institute, notes there are many more asylum officers with a much smaller caseload.
And she added they're doing this kind of work for non-border cases, including granting asylum for tens of thousands of people who are already in the U.S.
In 2019, asylum officers granted asylum to nearly 30,000 applicants from places such as Venezuela, China, Egypt, Turkey and Russia. This included grants of asylum to more than 3,200 applicants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who were already in the U.S. when they applied.
There are concerns with the new plan. Some advocates fear it could be used in a way to speed up deportations without due process.
Meissner agrees that asylum-seekers' rights must be protected, including having access to legal advice and the ability to appeal.
But she said it must be done "in a timely fashion, within a couple of months rather than years into the future. So that they can get on with their lives if they're approved for asylum, but they're returned to their countries if they're not."
NOEL KING, HOST:
There is an enormous backlog of asylum cases in U.S. immigration courts. There just are not enough judges. The White House, though, has a plan to fix this. Asylum officers at the Department of Homeland Security already make some of the decisions about who gets asylum; the plan is to let them make more. Here's NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: When people arrive at the southern border seeking asylum from domestic violence, gangs and persecution, it can take years for their cases to be heard. The backlog is nearly 1.3 million cases, and there are only about 540 judges handling them.
CECILIA MUÑOZ: The system that we have now, which was built decades ago, during the Cold War, is not functioning.
ORDOÑEZ: That Cecilia Muñoz. She was former President Barack Obama's immigration adviser.
MUÑOZ: The notion that you can wait so long before you even have a chance to make your case, it kind of makes a mockery of what it is that we're trying to do.
ORDOÑEZ: President Biden promised to try to fix the system. So his team has proposed a new rule - it would allow asylum officers at the Department of Homeland Security to rule on cases instead of the immigration courts. The plan is based on an idea from Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration.
DORIS MEISSNER: If the cases are decided in a timely fashion, then that means that those who are eligible for asylum get to stay in the United States and start a new life. And it also means that those who are not eligible for asylum would need to be returned.
ORDOÑEZ: There are about 860 asylum officers who already handle tens of thousands of these types of cases, just not the ones at the southern border. There are concerns. Some advocates fear it could be used in a way to speed up deportations without due process. Meissner says she agrees that applicants must be able to keep their right to appeal in court. But this change would help give people answers, positive or negative, so that they can get on with their lives.
Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.