By crediting “smart lawyers” for their ability to manipulate customs and border officials and immigration judges into believing their asylee clients have a credible fear of being persecuted at home, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fell in line with the Trump administration by attacking the asylum process as an easy way for individuals to enter the country “illegally.” Blaming the massive backlog of asylum cases for allowing “illegal immigrants to enter and stay in the United States,” the White House suggests increasing the standard of proof necessary to establish credible fear and imposing penalties for frivolous or fraudulent cases as a solution. But the backlogs in court dates actually harm most asylum applicants, and changing the system in the ways proposed by the administration will only serve to exacerbate the problem.
The now infamous “backlog” continues to expand; in August, there were 632,261 pending asylum cases, an increase of 82,000 since President Trump took office. In many cases, people wait anywhere from three to five years for their next hearing.
In part, the Trump Administration is to blame for the growing numbers. Early this year, at the behest of the President, Sessions reassigned a handful of immigration judges to border detention facilities, resulting in the postponement of 22,600 hearings in just three months. The administration also impacted the growing backlog by ending the practice of exempting certain groups of removable aliens from enforcement. That led to a massive increase in the number of detentions, which must take priority for immigration judges.
At this point, Human Rights First estimates that 524 immigration judges and support staff are needed to eliminate the backlog by 2024, or we will face a one million case backlog by 2026.
To better handle the backlog and assure that asylum applicants are not detained for extended periods of time, we need to ensure that immigration officials have the capacity to siphon out cases that do not require full adjudication and to stipulate well-established facts and law, to reduce the amount of time certain applicants must be in court. To hear cases more efficiently, updates to the master calendars need to be made that allow certain applicants to expedite or waive initial hearings and combine initial and master hearings in cases where the facts are previously stipulated. Filling judges’ occasionally empty dockets with merit hearings—hearings on the substance of the case—is one way to ensure a more speedy process.
Although other immigration policies currently hog the national limelight, the right changes to asylum policies are nearly as critical as protecting DACA recipients from deportation.