The Biden administration unveiled a proposal Wednesday to accelerate the handling of asylum claims along the U.S.-Mexico border to address a record-high backlog of roughly 1.3 million cases.
Under the proposed plan, asylum-seekers who establish they have a credible fear of persecution and are placed in expedited removal proceedings will be able to have their cases heard and decided by U.S. Citizenship Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officers, rather than immigration judges who are typically overwhelmed by cases. USCIS is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
The new guideline changes what happens after the initial screening, which is expected to now be deemed as an asylum application.
"Individuals who are eligible will receive relief more swiftly, while those who are not eligible will be expeditiously removed,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “We are building an immigration system that is designed to ensure due process, respect human dignity and promote equity."
Those who receive a negative outcome in the initial stage will be able to appeal to the immigration courts managed by the Department of Justice.
Although the rule is not expected to be implemented for months, it has the potential of changing the dynamic of the U.S. asylum system, leading to faster asylum decisions and a decrease in cases cluttering the immigration court backlog.
But some immigration and human rights advocates are skeptical about the proposed restructuring of the system.
Some welcomed the proposal but expressed concerns about the repeated use of the term “expedited removal” — a process in which migrants are fast-tracked for deportation to their home countries if U.S. immigration officers conclude they do not have valid asylum claims. That determination is also made without migrants appearing before an immigration judge. Unaccompanied children who cross the border into the United States are exempt from the policy.
“The proposed rule could be used and abused to rush asylum-seekers through adjudications without sufficient time to secure legal representation, gather evidence or prepare their cases, leading U.S. agencies to return to persecution of people who actually do qualify for asylum,” Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First, said in an email.
She also explained that the proposed guideline would give a migrant only a chance for an immigration court “review” rather than an actual hearing if the USCIS officer does not approve the person's claim to asylum.
Under the current system, those who arrive at the U.S. border and are placed in expedited removal proceedings are given a “credible fear” interview with an asylum officer. If the immigration official approves the case, the migrant is moved to the immigration court system where application for asylum occurs. An immigration judge decides on the case, a process that can take years to resolve.
If a migrant does not pass the initial credible fear interview, the person is expelled from the country without seeing a judge.
Yet, Mayorkas said the rule is expected to give the U.S. government the "ability to more promptly and efficiently consider the asylum claims of individuals encountered at or near the border, while ensuring fundamental fairness."