As the White House works to cut back immigration, asylum seekers are the latest group caught in the crackdown. The Trump administration released enforcement priorities last week that included tightening standards in the U.S. asylum system.
While President Donald Trump's immigration policies do not specify what action will be taken, the administration seems to be working to speed up deportation proceedings for asylum petitioners.
The U.S. offers asylum — or protection — to people who are forced to flee their own countries because of persecution due to "race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion."
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday in a speech to the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) that the current asylum system is "subject to rampant abuse and fraud" and he called for tighter rules for people seeking asylum in the United States.
Sessions said current policies allow applicants to take advantage of a "broken" court system that is backlogged by about 600,000 cases nationwide, although not all of them are asylum cases.
"That is why I am here today. We have a crisis at our borders and we intend to fix it. A great nation cannot allow this disgrace any longer," Sessions told the audience, which included immigration judges.
A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo, obtained by CNN, would clear the way for immigration judges to take away legal protections offered to unaccompanied minors by making it harder for them to claim asylum if they are reunited with a parent in the U.S., or if they turn 18 during the proceedings.
Another proposal is establishing performance metrics for immigration judges — something that attorneys say would only make judges work through cases at a faster pace.
Mana Yegani, a Houston immigration lawyer, told VOA such guidelines will deprive people of their right to due process.
"There's already a problem with immigration judges because they're not elected officials. They're hired by the Department of Justice. ... The Department of Justice pays their paycheck and they basically take guidance from the Department of Justice," Yegani said.
Asylum cases explained
DHS says asylum laws are expected to ensure due process to anyone caught at the U.S. border without documents or any immigrant detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) living in the United States.
Any foreign national can file asylum claims regardless of their immigration status.
But asylum seekers must apply within one year from the date of last arrival or show proof of an "exceptional" change based on extraordinary circumstances.
Above all, asylum seekers must prove to the asylum officer that they have a "credible fear" of returning to their home country.
Sessions said many of the asylum cases lack merit. The system, he said, has become "overloaded with fake claims."
"It cannot deal effectively with just claims," Sessions said. "The surge in trials, hearings, appeals, bond proceedings has been overwhelming."
Sessions said "credible fear claims" at the border increased from about 3,000 cases in 2009 to more than 69,000 cases in 2016. He added that 88 percent of asylum cases are approved.
U.S. Customs and Immigration Service figures show the approval rate for FY2017 was 76 percent.
Yegani said the credible fear interview process is already "very difficult."
"I had a client who went through a credible fear interview. … She was 19 and she had been gang raped. The interviewing officer was a male. ... And she couldn't tell the officer about the gang rape. … She was scared. So, she failed her interview," Yegani said.
If an asylum officer denies the credible fear claim, an immigration judge reviews the questions the asylum officer asked the applicant to see if there was an error.
Attorneys, however, are not allowed to speak or present new evidence during a credible fear hearing, and there are no appeals of the immigration judge's decision. Credible fear hearings usually last between five to 10 minutes.
"Basically, if I go to a hearing with a judge when a credible fear is denied, I have to just sit there. … [Once] I had photos of dead people from the person's family that I was able to obtain and I wanted to introduce into evidence, and it was just not accepted," Yegani said.
Another requirement, attorneys said, is asylum seekers must show that law enforcement or government officials in their country of origin did nothing to protect them.
"That in itself could be denial of the credible fear because they're saying you haven't established proof that your government is not willing support you," Yegani said, adding that many of her clients come from countries where they do not trust the police to keep them or their family safe.
But the hardline group Federation for American Immigration Reform says asylum is risky.
"We are taking at face value the claims of aliens about whom we know nothing. Because of the nature of asylum claims, the claimant's true background and history are difficult to verify, and it is nearly impossible to determine whether a claimant is bona fide," the group writes on its website.
Held in detention
In June, the Associated Press reported the "overwhelming majority" of asylum seekers — about 70,000 — were being held at family detention centers. They are placed in a "highly intrusive intensive supervision program as they await court hearings on whether they can stay in the U.S."
Jeremy Jong, an attorney at Southern Poverty Law Center, said a lot of people are "weeded out" by the credible fear process, and many are not eligible to request asylum "because they've been in the U.S. for more than a year" or have been previously deported.
Jong also said the EOIR's pending caseload has "many drivers," including the hiring freeze on immigration judges during the Obama administration, and the Trump administration's own directive to arrest more people and to re-calendar previously closed cases.
"Who comes to the U.S. and says, 'Yes, I will be detained for maybe 6, 7, 8 months while my case is being adjudicated,' unless there's a real reason why they can't go back?" Jong said.