What’s the Fuss Over Asylum Applicants at the U.S. Border?

nasa borderHave the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Associated Press successfully debunked Fox News’s recent claims that a “loophole” is allowing hundreds of undeserving immigrants to cross the Mexico/U.S. border by asserting a “credible fear” of persecution by drug cartels?

I hope so. Still, the media coverage could use a little more depth regarding the legal aspects of this (non) issue.

First, the background: Starting in August 2012, various Fox News programs began asserting the existence of a supposedly “new” loophole, by which Mexican would-be immigrants could state certain “magic words” and be admitted to the U.S., after which they might never show up for their court dates. For a rundown on the Fox coverage, see the Media Matters page.

After some media hoopla, the DHS came out with figures showing that the number of credible fear applicants had reached 14,610 by the end of June 2013, more than double what it was last year. Putting that in context, however, DHS officials noted that it represents only a small fraction of the millions of legal entrants from Mexico each year, and that U.S. officials deny the vast majority of such credible fear claims. The DHS also noted that there’s nothing new about this law — it’s been on the books for years.

Indeed, the law simply represents a balancing out of U.S. asylum law, which allows people within the U.S. who are fleeing persecution to apply for asylum — whether they are here legally or not — but needed some mechanism for people who arrive at a U.S. border, airport, or other point of entry to request the same protection. Do the immigration critics really want to reward people who have already crossed the border illegally or overstayed a visa, by allowing them to apply for asylum, but not grant this possibility to people who’ve just arrived? Apparently so, unless — as seems likely — they haven’t thought this issue through.

It’s not as though requesting asylum at a U.S. border or entry point is easy. Scholars and immigration advocates have long criticized this part of the law, because the process includes huge hurdles that are not encountered by people who have already entered the the U.S., and apparently results in many people being unfairly returned to home countries where they will face persecution.

It’s easy to believe the DHS’s assertions that it denies most of these entry requests. As described in Nolo’s article, “What Happens at a Credible Fear Interview,” the applicant is likely to be held in detention after asserting a credible fear of return; is given no access to documents or resources with which to prepare a convincing application; and has little chance of finding an attorney.

The applicant must nevertheless convince a U.S. government interviewer that he or she has a a “significant possibility” of being able to later prove to the satisfaction of an immigration judge – during the next procedural stage of the process, if it ever gets that far — that he or she would be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion if returned to his or her home country. Applicants who fail in this task will be returned home right away; no appeal, no meeting with an immigration judge.

And what about the possibility — which no one seems to be discussing — that more Mexican citizens really do fear persecution due to activities of the drug cartels? The number of Mexicans granted asylum in the U.S. has risen, according to U.S. government statistics. And attorney Kristina Gasson states, based on recent experience, that “The most commonly granted asylum petitions from Mexico are based on fear of persecution and violence from drug cartels and drug traffickers based on social group or political opinion.” (See “Can I Apply for U.S. Asylum If I’m From Mexico?“) Without knowing the details of individual cases, the Fox News approach seems to be to presume first and ask questions later.