A surge in the number of illegal immigrants seeking asylum after crossing the U.S. border is likely to become a major area of contention as Washington gears up for another clash over immigration reform.
Critics of the immigration blueprint that stalled in the House are incensed by a jump in claims from people who cross the border illegally and who say they can’t return home because of safety concerns.
Department of Homeland Security figures show that more than 27,000 illegal immigrants made "credible fear" claims after crossing the border last fiscal year, compared with fewer than 11,000 the year before. The increase is coming primarily from Mexico and Central America, according to DHS data.
Immigration judges ultimately reject the overwhelming majority of asylum requests. However, those sounding the alarm point out that such illegal immigrants are often allowed to go free until a court hearing — sometimes months later — and drop off the grid altogether.
With the government shutdown behind him, President Obama has started yet another push for comprehensive immigration reform. Conservative lawmakers have shown little appetite to take up the polarizing legislation as the 2014 midterm elections approach.
The Obama administration has long argued that the U.S.-Mexican border has never been more secure, accusing Republicans of misleading the public about border security in an effort to stall legislation that has broad public support.
However, the growing number of asylum requests has alarmed GOP leaders who say that any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants must come after stiffer border security metrics are reached by the federal government.
“This is yet further proof of the Obama administration’s abandonment of any serious commitment to see that the immigration laws of the United States are faithfully executed,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a vocal critic of the White House’s immigration push. “The dramatic increase in asylum admissions has exposed another grave flaw in [the Department of Homeland Security’s] implementation of the law. This abuse takes advantage of our nation’s compassionate policy to grant relief for those truly and unlawfully living in fear in their home countries."
The issue of asylum requests came to the political forefront when a group of immigration rights activists staged a protest at the U.S.-Mexico border. The “Dream 9” left the United States and then attempted to reenter the country from Mexico. The protesters were given an asylum hearing and allowed to return to the United States as they await a judge’s ruling on their case, which is not expected for months.
Administration officials point out that more than 90 percent of asylum requests from Mexican citizens, for example, are eventually denied. They say that Republican rhetoric about a so-called asylum loophole undermines the legitimate need to offer immigrants safe harbor — and they accuse GOP leaders of using the issue to derail the centerpiece of Obama’s legislative agenda.
“These figures fluctuate; each case is unique,” one administration official told the Washington Examiner. “It’s entirely false to argue that this is some sort of ‘new normal.’ That’s a political talking point that has no bearing in reality.”
Analysts calling for a more hardline immigration approach say that a litany of less-publicized cases underscores a problem that could mushroom if allowed to go unchecked.
“If we send the message that illegal immigrants can get in just by uttering asylum, it could spin out of control very, very quickly,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “That’s as good as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Asylum is only for people who can’t find somewhere to go in their own country.”