Republican Proposal Sets to Drastically Restrict Asylum Seekers’ Legal Rights

WASHINGTON (AP) — There is a growing bipartisan consensus on the need for immigration reform, but significant disagreements remain on the specifics. The ongoing increase in illegal border crossings since 2020 has intensified pressure for changes to the asylum application process. This system is designed to provide protection for noncitizens who fear returning to their home countries.

Undocumented migrants entering the United States have limited options to legally stay in the country, with asylum being the primary pathway for many. However, conservative Republicans in Congress are proposing legal changes that would make it more difficult for most applicants to obtain asylum.

Unlike previous iterations, the Republicans’ plan closely aligns with a rule implemented by the Department of Homeland Security in 2019, which is also being pursued by President Joe Biden. Although the President cannot change the law, Congress has the authority to do so, and if successful, the new laws would supersede previous court decisions.

Currently, individuals, regardless of their immigration status or how they entered the country, can apply for asylum once they are in the United States or at the border. The application process can be complex and lengthy, often taking several years. Many undocumented migrants apply for asylum while detained in immigration detention centers.

To be granted asylum, applicants must demonstrate that they face severe harm in their home country from their government or an entity their government cannot control. This harm must be based on factors such as race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or other immutable characteristics.

Asylum seekers present their cases to a U.S. government asylum officer, who assesses the credibility of their claims during an interview. If they pass this initial stage, they are allowed to seek asylum before an immigration judge. At this point, extensive evidence demonstrating the imminent danger they would face if deported is required. However, obtaining this evidence can be challenging without legal assistance.

Even if all requirements are met, a judge still has discretion in deciding whether to grant asylum. Those who are granted asylum can apply for U.S. green cards, allowing them to work, access certain government benefits, and eventually apply for citizenship.

The surge in undocumented migrants, particularly from countries with significant government instability and violence like Venezuela and Honduras, has led to a substantial increase in asylum applications. As a result, there is now a backlog of 3 million cases in U.S. immigration courts, with 1 million of those being asylum cases. The average wait time for an asylum hearing is around four years, and in some cases, even longer.

Conservative House Republicans are leveraging their power over issues like foreign aid to Ukraine and Israel to push for changes to asylum laws. They oppose President Biden’s proposal to allocate nearly $14 billion for increased border security and resources for asylum processing. Instead, they seek new legislation that would deny asylum to individuals who passed through a third country on their path to the U.S. or did not enter through an official port of entry along the border.

This proposed law specifically targets migrants from countries other than Mexico, such as Venezuela, Haiti, and Cuba, who typically pass through Mexico en route to the U.S. If enacted, these migrants would not have the opportunity to apply for asylum and would be promptly deported.

While Democrats opposed similar changes in a bill proposed in May 2023, some are now showing more openness to asylum restrictions, potentially paving the way for a compromise.

Overall, the proposed changes put forth by Republicans would significantly limit the possibility of migrants entering through the U.S.-Mexico border to obtain asylum, even if they have legitimate fears of returning to their home countries.