Fix asylum rules, Sessions tells Congress
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions called on Congress Thursday to tighten the rules for people seeking asylum through a system he said is filled with “rampant abuse and fraud.”
In a speech at the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, Sessions said the nation’s policies allow too many asylumseekers to exploit loopholes in a “broken” and extremely backlogged process.
“The system is being gamed,” Sessions said. “Over the years, smart attorneys have exploited loopholes in the law, court rulings and lack of resources to substantially undermine the intent of Congress. … There is no cost or risk for those who make a baseless asylum claim.”
Tightening standards in the U.S. asylum system was on a list of immigration principles and policies that President Donald Trump’s administration recently said were needed to protect public safety and jobs for American-born workers. The administration’s list, sent to Congress, included the funding of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, curbs on federal grants to “sanctuary cities” and a crackdown on the influx of Central American minors.
Civil-liberties advocates said Sessions’ comments were inaccurate and unfair to the thousands of people fleeing from dangerous, life-threatening situations in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Venezuela.
“Attorney General [Sessions’] remarks today were a mere continuation of the administration’s efforts to falsely paint asylum seekers and refugees as threats and frauds,” said Eleanor Acer, the senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First. “These individuals are not criminals and frauds; they are mothers, teenagers and children desperate to escape violence and persecution.”
Asylum is given to people on specific grounds because the person fears or has experienced persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. There are two ways to be granted asylum: One is “affirmative” asylum through the Department of Homeland Security. Applicants have to file a claim within a year of arrival in the United States that they fear returning home.
The second is a “defensive” application for asylum because the person has filed late, was rejected by the Homeland Security Department or was apprehended without proper legal documents. The defensive cases are handled by the Department of Justice immigration courts.
Sessions said that many of the asylum cases “lacked merit” and are “simply a ruse to enter the country illegally.”
“As this system becomes overloaded with fake claims, it cannot deal effectively with just claims,” Sessions said. “The surge in trials, hearings, appeals, bond proceedings has been overwhelming.” He said that “credible fear claims” at the border increased from about 3,000 cases in 2009 to more than 69,000 cases in 2016. The Justice Department’s immigration review office has more than 600,000 cases pending, which has tripled since 2009, according to the department.
“We also have dirty immigration lawyers, who are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum, providing them with the magic words needed to trigger the credible-fear process,” Sessions said.
Separately, the Justice Department on Thursday warned five jurisdictions considered to have “sanctuary” policies — Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and Cook County, Ill., — that officials had preliminarily found them to be in violation of a federal law governing communication with immigration authorities and they could be at risk of losing grant funding. More than $8.3 million is at stake, a Justice Department spokesman said.
“Jurisdictions that adopt socalled ‘sanctuary policies’ also adopt the view that the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and of the rule of law,” Sessions said in a statement.
Last month, the Trump administration arrested hundreds of illegal aliens in cities that are some of the harshest opponents of Trump’s immigration policies, including Washington, New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles.
In his Thursday speech, the attorney general called on his former colleagues — he was once a U.S. senator from Alabama — to revamp the asylum system by imposing penalties for fraudulent applications, increase the use of expedited removal, elevate the standard of proof in “credible fear” interviews and expand the ability to return asylum seekers to safe third countries.
“What we cannot do — what we must not do — is continue to let our generosity be abused,” Sessions said.