White House Proposes Sending Some Asylum Cases to Immigration Services to Clear DOJ Backlog

The White House on Wednesday proposed sending some asylum claim cases to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to help clear the Justice Department's immigration court system's all-time-high backlog of around 1.3 million cases, the Associated Press reported.

More people are seeking asylum in the U.S. in recent years, with many doing so at the U.S.-Mexico Border. Under President Joe Biden's proposal, asylum officers from the USCIS, a part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), would oversee some routine asylum claim cases so they can be sorted through faster as many asylum seekers have waited years for a resolution to their cases. Currently, the cases are assigned to immigration judges within the Justice Department.

The proposal would permit an asylum seeker that "establishes a credible fear of removal" to be sent to a USCIS officer for a hearing on their claim, according to a release from the DHS.

"Individuals who are eligible will receive relief more swiftly, while those who are not eligible will be expeditiously removed," DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Migrants Processed by Border Control
The White House proposed sending some asylum cases to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers to clear the Justice Department's backlog. Above, migrants are accounted for and processed by border patrol after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States on July 1, 2021, in Roma, Texas. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Advocates for the change see it as a way to help those with legitimate claims for protection while allowing officials to more quickly deal with people who do not qualify for asylum or are taking advantage of the long delay to stay in the United States.

The proposal must go through a public comment period before it can be adopted as a new policy.

The Trump administration tried to deal with the backlog of cases in part by imposing stricter criteria for asylum and forcing people to seek protection in Mexico and Central America. Biden's proposal would streamline the system.

As the system works now, people who present themselves at the border or are apprehended by the Border Patrol and identify themselves as asylum-seekers must pass what is known as a "credible fear" interview. A USCIS asylum officer determines whether they meet the criteria of someone facing persecution in their homeland because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Even if they pass, their case is now referred to an immigration judge and they can wait years for a resolution.

The theory behind the proposed change is that experienced USCIS asylum officers can more quickly sort cases. People who are denied can appeal and have their case decided in an immigration court. Advocates for the new policy believe some people with weak claims will be dissuaded from trying by the early denial.

DHS plans to hire 1,000 asylum officers and 1,000 support staff to handle the extra workload that will result from the change.

Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, had previously called for adoption of this change, saying in a recent Migration Policy Institute opinion piece that it is "potentially a game changer" that would balance humanitarian protection for those eligible with the need to control the border.

"The recent increase in arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, which are the latest in a series of periodic spikes, make this change all the more compelling," wrote Meissner, now a senior fellow at the institute.

The rate at which asylum is granted varies widely by a person's country of origin and circumstances. Applicants from Honduras received the protection 10 percent of the time while the rate for people from China was 37 percent, according to the most recent statistics from the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Migrants in Texas
The White House proposed sending some asylum cases to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers to clear the Justice Department's backlog. Above, migrants stand stand in line at a respite center after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, turned themselves in and were released in Del Rio, Texas, on June 16, 2021. Eric Gay/AP Photo