Caravan Migrants May Wait up to Five Years to Hear Decision on Their Asylum Case

President Donald Trump wants to see the dozens of migrants who arrived at the southern border this week turned away on the spot. In reality, most of them will remain in the country for months or even years in detention or on parole, in cities across the United States, awaiting a decision on their case for asylum.

Immigration experts tell Newsweek that, on average, asylum seekers can expect the process to take as little as three months and as long as five years. Short waits don't guarantee a positive result—and, after spending several years in a country they've learned to call home, many asylum seekers will reach the end of the process only for a judge to order their return to their homeland.

Right now, immigrant rights advocates worry that Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents are slowing down an already overwhelmed asylum system in hopes that the Central American migrants seeking refuge will turn back of their own volition.

"These people have been there for almost two full days now, and a total of 14 people have gotten in so far," Jennifer Quigley, an advocacy strategist at Human Rights First, told Newsweek. "We're really concerned that taking them in in such a small trickle is an effort to encourage people to give up and not try to enter the country at all."

U.S. immigration officials have a legal obligation to process any migrant who comes to the country's border seeking asylum, Quigley explained. If the U.S. officials were to turn a migrant from the caravan with a request for asylum away, per Trump's requests, and send them back to a country where they could face persecution, the U.S. government would be violating domestic and international law. But that doesn't mean officials have an obligation to make the asylum-seeking process easy or efficient—and it certainly doesn't mean they haven't found ways to test the boundaries of the law, according to Quigley.

"Immigration officials are saying the border crossing is at capacity, and using wording to get around the fact that they're not letting an asylum seeker into the country," Quigley said, referencing CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan's Sunday statement. At the time, he said some immigrants might have to "wait in Mexico" for processing.

"They're trying to find the gray area in the law so they can get away with what would otherwise be an illegal act," Quigley continued.

Those who have already gained entry face a daunting process, the first step of which involves a "credible fear" interview.

CBP agents are supposed to turn immigrants seeking asylum over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) within 72 hours. ICE officials then must request an asylum officer—someone from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), another office within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—to arrange the interview, which should take place within three weeks' time. (In some cases, Quigley said, migrants have waited for as long as six months.) If officials decide that the asylum seeker has credible reason to fear for their safety in their native country, they will be evaluated for parole and given a date to appear before an immigration judge, who will rule on their case.

That's when the real wait begins.

"In talking about asylum, first and foremost we believe the ongoing call for reform needs to be reminded up front," a spokesperson from USCIS told Newsweek, citing DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielson's written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, where she suggests the department "impose and enforce penalties for fraud" in credible-fear interviews, "and ensure applicants are fully vetted before they are allowed access to the United States." According to USCIS, credible-fear claims rose by nearly 1900 percent between 2008 and 2016.

"This underscores the need to close exploited loopholes that have caused the increase in fraud and abuse of the asylum-seeker system," the spokesperson told Newsweek.

The process can move more quickly for those who are ordered to remain in detention, which has become more common for migrants seeking asylum under the Trump administration, which considers expedited adjudication a way to solve the massive asylum backlog. Remaining in detention usually means less access to immigration attorneys, who can guide migrants through a confusing bureaucratic process, and can mean a higher likelihood of having a request for asylum denied, according to immigrant rights advocates.

Asylum attorney Lindsay Harris is one lawyer handling such cases. She told Newsweek about one client, a young man fleeing gang violence in Honduras. He has waited more than eight years for his day in immigration court. The client was supposed to attend his hearing last month until it got postponed again—until 2020.

Harris compared the caravan, which started out with over 1,000 Central Americans traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border, to the moral test the U.S. faced in 1939, when the government turned away a ship carrying 937 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe.

"This is not new," Harris said. "But the way that we treat this caravan of refugees is really a test of our commitment to our international and domestic legal obligations."