A wave of people seeking better lives has overwhelmed America's immigration infrastructure. In response, the United States has allowed hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking asylum to live and work in the country without any evaluation of the merits of their claims, while summarily expelling hundreds of thousands of others, also without regard to the merits of their claims. A promise to shelter those in need has thus devolved into a Kafkaesque sham.
Immigration is a vitalizing force in the nation's cultural and economic life, but the United States cannot admit all those who wish to come. The choice of who is allowed to enter must be intentional, not the result of a government that lacks the capacity to enforce its own laws. The shambles of the asylum process is undermining public support for immigration. And that, in turn, jeopardizes the ability of those with legitimate need to obtain refuge.
America's commitment to offer asylum to people fleeing violence and persecution in their homelands is an essential expression of the nation's ideals. But the system is broken.
The United States needs to invest the resources necessary to live up to its ideals by building a system that treats asylum seekers with dignity, provides for a fair and efficient adjudication of their claims and ensures that those who do not obtain permission to stay in the country do not remain.
The daily scenes of bedraggled families sloshing across the Rio Grande to reach Texas encapsulate the misery and unfairness of an immigration system that has devolved into a haphazard collection of breaches and barriers. Between October 2021 and June 2022, the first three quarters of the most recent fiscal year, the government accepted asylum applications from more than 150,000 people, mostly from Latin America, many traveling with their families. Often they seek or wait patiently for arrest as soon as they set foot in the United States, knowing that after a few days in federal custody, they will be released. More than 750,000 people are now waiting for the government to review their asylum claims, and the average wait time is more than four years, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. In the meantime, they can live in the United States and, after 150 days, apply for permission to work here.
The Government Accountability Office reported last month that the government was struggling to keep track of a significant portion of those released from custody. Between March 2021 and February 2022, Customs and Border Protection released 184,900 migrants seeking asylum. They were instructed to report to immigration offices in their destination cities, but as of March 2022, roughly one in four of those people had failed to do so.
The backlog of asylum claims has swelled even though the government, since March 2020, has used the pretext of a public health emergency to bar asylum claims from some of the nations that historically have numbered among the largest sources of migrants seeking to enter the United States, including Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Between October 2021 and June 2022, the federal government invoked that rule, known as Title 42, to expel migrants 853,000 times along the southern border (although that number includes many people who were caught and expelled more than once). The Biden administration's efforts to end the use of the rule are currently tied up in federal court.
The capricious nature of the current system was on vivid display earlier this month. After allowing tens of thousands of migrants from Venezuela to enter the country in recent years, the Biden administration added Venezuela to the list of Title 42 countries, effectively barring new claims. That was an abrupt shift from an overly permissive policy to an overly restrictive one.
The basic problem is that the government does not have the resources to act justly. A bill introduced last year, the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act, would provide those resources. The core of the bill would expand the capacity of the immigration system to triage asylum claims. It provides funding for four new processing centers along the southern border where migrants seeking asylum could be detained for up to 72 hours and where they would undergo health screenings, background checks and an initial screening to determine whether they have a credible fear of persecution in their countries of origin. Individuals who do not meet the standard could be deported, with a limited right to appeal.
The bill also instructs the government to prioritize adjudication of new asylum claims during surges in the number of applications. That may delay the processing of existing claims, but it is a sensible strategy to discourage people without valid claims from joining the back of the line in the hope that years will pass before anyone judges the merit of their claim.
For all the problems that the border protection bill does not address, it still provides a framework for substantive progress. And its narrow focus may be a political virtue. Efforts to craft comprehensive overhauls of immigration law have proved unavailing, and the polarizing legacy of the xenophobic rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration has made any progress on immigration difficult.
Winning broader support will require more compromise and courage. But regardless of the results of the midterm elections, Congress has a real opportunity to begin the critical work of fixing the nation's immigration system by overhauling the asylum process.
-- The New York Times, Oct. 28