According to two government officials, the Biden administration is gradually implementing new changes that would increase the speed with which the US government evaluates asylum requests – a common request from migrants at the border.
After the agency screens the applicant for a well-founded fear of persecution or specific harm if returned to their home country, the new rule would allow asylum officers at US Citizenship and Immigration Services to fully adjudicate the merits of an asylum case.
In a statement released Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said, “The current system for handling asylum claims at our borders has long needed repair.” “We are creating a more functional and sensible asylum system with this rule, ensuring that those who are eligible receive protection more quickly and those who are not are quickly removed. We will process asylum and other humanitarian protection claims in a timely and efficient manner while adhering to all legal requirements.”
Currently, immigration judges in the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review handle asylum cases for those in expedited removal proceedings. For cases that are still being heard by a judge, USCIS will deliver the defendant’s filed record, which includes interview transcripts with screeners and the previous USCIS decision, at the start of the case.
Cases are expected to be finished in 90 days, barring any requests for extensions. Asylum cases today can take months, if not years, to resolve. According to Syracuse University researchers, the result leaves the federal immigration court in the United States with a total case backlog of more than one million cases.
Immigrant advocacy groups have expressed mixed feelings about the policy change, citing concerns about access to legal counsel under the new expedited timeline.
“While we appreciate that the Biden administration made a number of positive changes to the regulation in response to the comments, we are gravely concerned about the timeframes proposed in the regulation,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an attorney and policy analyst with the American Immigration Counsel. “One of the most important factors in determining whether a person can obtain asylum, according to studies, is their ability to hire a lawyer. The rule, as written, would greatly increase the risk of an unjust denial of asylum because these timelines will make it more difficult to obtain an attorney.”
Since it was first announced last year, other groups have praised the move as a positive step toward administrative immigration reform.
In August, Ali Noorani, the head of the National Immigration Forum, said, “As it moves to make much-needed changes to the asylum process, the administration should continue working with advocates and other stakeholders to ensure a fully functional, fair, and secure asylum system for all those seeking protection.”
The announcement “is a major change and very welcome news,” according to Melanie Nezer, a spokesperson for the refugee aid organization HIAS. “However, we remain concerned about the longstanding use of expedited removal,” she added.
If an asylum officer denies a case under the new system, the person in question can appeal to a judge and then to the Board of Immigration Appeals. Officials say the expedited removal and apprehension process is largely unchanged.
Officials on Wednesday couldn’t say how broadly they plan to implement the policy, which is set to start at the end of May or the beginning of June, but they did say it would be a careful, gradual process.