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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum


  1. The Cato Institute on the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act

    This post is by David J. Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. Below is a statement he submitted to the House of Representatives about a new bill that is currently under consideration, the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act. The bill would make it more difficult for certain aliens to seek asylum in the United States (though in a nod to Christian conservatives, the bill would also make it easier to gain asylum for people fleeing "home school persecution").

    David J. Bier

    The Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act (H.R. 391) would undermine the individual rights of people fleeing persecution and violence to seek asylum in the United States. The bill would obliterate the current asylum standards for people seeking asylum at the border, and now require such asylum seekers to prove their claims to an impossible degree immediately upon their arrival at the border—without access to the documents or witnesses that they would need to do so. The government would then promptly deport without a hearing before an immigration judge those who fail this unattainable requirement, possibly to endure violence or persecution.

    The authors claim that this radical change is necessary due to an unprecedented surge of asylum applicants. In the 1990s, however, a similar surge of asylum seekers arrived in the United States, and Congress adopted much less severe reforms than those proposed in this bill. Even assuming that the applicants are submitting asylum applications for the sole purpose of gaining entrance to the United States, the bill does nothing to address the underlying cause of the problem: the lack of a legal alternative to migrate. As long as legal immigration remains impossible for lesser-skilled workers and their family members, unauthorized immigration of various kinds will continue to present a challenge.

    Asylum rule change will result in denials of legitimate claims

    Current law requires that asylum seekers at the border assert a “credible fear” of persecution. Asylum officers determine credibility based on whether there is a “significant possibility” that, if they allow the person to apply, an immigration judge would find that the fear is “well-founded,” a higher standard of proof. The credible fear interview screens out only the claims that obviously have “no possibility, or only a minimal or mere possibility, of success,” as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) puts it. If the USCIS asylum officer rejects the claim as not credible, the applicant may ask an immigration judge to review the determination the next day but is not granted a full hearing. Customs and Border Protection removes those who fail to assert or fail to articulate a credible fear.

    H.R. 391 would impose a much higher standard simply to apply for asylum in the United States. In addition to demonstrating that they had significant possibility of successfully proving their claim to an immigration judge, it would require applicants to prove that it is “more probable than not” that their claims are true—a preponderance of the evidence standard. This standard eviscerates the lower bar that Congress established. The committee simply cannot expect that asylum seekers who may have had to sneak out of their country of origin in the dead of night or swim across rivers to escape persecution will have sufficient evidence the moment they arrive in the United States to meet this burden.

    In 2016, a group of Syrian Christians who traveled thousands of miles across multiple continents and then up through Mexico to get to the United States arrived at the border to apply for asylum. Thankfully, they met the credible fear standard and were not deported, which enabled them to hire an attorney to help them lay out their claim, but this new standard could endanger anyone who follows their path. An inability to provide sufficient evidence of their religion, nationality, residence, or fear would result in deportation immediately after presenting themselves at the border.

    The authors imply that requiring them to prove their statements are true is not the same as requiring them to prove their entire asylum case, but this is a distinction without a difference. Asylum applicants must state a “credible fear” of persecution. Those statements would then be subject to the much more stringent standard. Of course the government should demand the truth from all applicants, but this is a question of the standard by which asylum officers should use to weed truth from falsehood. It is virtually impossible that, by words alone, asylum seekers could prove that it is “more probable than not” that their statements are true.

    The committee should consider this fact: in 2016, immigration judges reversed nearly 30 percent of all denials of credible fear that came to them on appeal. This means that even under the current law, asylum officers make errors that would reject people with credible claims of persecution. If Congress requires an even greater burden, many more such errors will occur, but faced with the higher evidentiary requirement, immigration judges will have little choice but to ratify them.

    Here is another sign that the truth is not enough: asylum applicants with attorneys were half as likely to have their asylum denied by immigration judges in 2016 as those without attorneys. Indeed, 90 percent of all applicants without counsel lose their case, while a majority with counsel win theirs. This demonstrates that people need more than just honesty—they also need to understand what evidence is relevant to their case and need help to gather documents, witnesses, and other evidence to support their claim.

    For these reasons, Congress never intended the credible fear interview as a rigorous adversarial process because it wanted to give people who could credibly articulate a fear of persecution an opportunity to apply. It knew that while some people without legitimate claims would be able to apply, the lower standard of proof would protect vulnerable people from exclusion. As Senator Alan Simpson, the sponsor of the 1996 bill that created the credible fear process, said, “it is a significantly lesser fear standard than we use for any other provision.” Indeed, during the debate over the compromise version of the bill, proponents of the legislation touted that the fact that they had dropped “the more probable than not” language in the original version.

    Asylum surge is not unprecedented

    People can either apply for asylum “affirmatively” to USCIS on their own or they can apply “defensively” after they come into the custody of the U.S. government somehow, such as at the border or airport, to an immigration judge, which would include the credible fear process. If USCIS denies an “affirmative” applicant who is in the country illegally, the government places them in removal proceedings before an immigration judge where they can present their claim again.

    Reviewing the data on asylum claims, two facts become clear: total asylum claims peaked in the 1990s, and a substantial majority of claims are affirmative—that is, done voluntarily, not through the credible fear process or through removal proceedings. Although credible fear claims—a process that was first created in 1997—have increased dramatically, the overall number of asylum claims has still not reached the highs of the early 1990s. Unfortunately, the immigration courts have not published the number of cases that they received before 1996, but as Figure 1 shows, the United States has experienced similar surges of asylum seekers to 2016.

    It is noteworthy that in the midst of the surge in the 1990s, Congress did not adopt the draconian approach that this bill would require. Rather, it created the credible fear process that the bill would essentially eliminate. The authors of the legislation, however, argue that the Obama administration turned the credible fear process into a rubber stamp, allowing applicants to enter regardless of the credibility of their claims. But again a look at the numbers undermines this narrative. As Figure 2 highlights, the Obama administration denied an average of about 25 percent of all asylum seekers from 2009 to 2016.

    Despite fluctuations of up to 35 percentage points during this time, there is simply no relationship at all between the rate of approval and the number of claims being made. Factors other than the approval rate must be driving the number of applications. Some of these claims are undoubtedly invalid or even fraudulent, but given that a majority of claims by individuals with representation in immigration court win their asylum claims, it is obvious that the credible fear process has protected many people from deportation to persecution abroad.

    If fraudulent claims are a concern, Congress can best address it in the same way that it has successfully addressed other aspects of illegal immigration from Mexico: through an expansion of legal immigration. During the 1950s and again recently in the 2000s, Congress expanded the availability of low-skilled guest worker visas, which led to a great reduction in the rate of illegal immigration. Figure 3 presents the number of guest workers entering each year and the number of people each border agent apprehended each year—the best available measure of illegal immigration. It shows that the period of high illegal immigration occurred almost exclusively during the period of restrictive immigration.

    Most guest workers today are Mexicans. This is largely due to the fact that the current guest worker programs are limited to seasonal temporary jobs and Mexico is closer to the United States, which makes trips to and from the United States easier. By comparison, most asylum seekers are from Central America. Assuming that a significant portion of these asylum seekers are either reuniting with illegal residents already in the United States or are seeking illegal residence themselves, these seasonal programs are unavailable to them.

    Congress should create a temporary work visa program for low-skilled workers in year-round jobs, similar to the H-1B visa for high-skilled workers. This would cut down on asylum fraud and illegal immigration without the downsides that this bill presents.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
  2. Where Cato Gets It Wrong on Asylum

    The Cato Institute's Alex Nowrasteh recently published a piece in the Huffington Post called Saving the Asylum System. The title accurately reflects the author's point, and of course I agree that our asylum system should be preserved (and--really--cherished). But where Mr. Nowrasteh gets it wrong, I think, is his analysis of the problem.

    Recipe for a refugee: Take one economic migrant, add persecutors, mix thoroughly.

    The "fundamental problem" according to Mr. Nowrasteh is that intending economic migrants who arrive illegally at the border and get caught are requesting asylum as a way of gaining entry into the U.S. to work. He views this as an "unintended consequence of severe restrictions that make it exceedingly difficult for lower-skilled immigrants to enter the country legally." He posits that "creating a low-skilled guest worker visa program to channel would-be unauthorized immigrants into the legal system [would remove] the incentive for some of them to make dubious asylum claims."

    is a Libertarian think tank, and Mr. Nowrasteh's proposal is a Libertarian solution (free flow of labor and all that).

    Before I respond, I must admit to a certain prejudice against Libertarianism in general. To use a fancy law school word, I find the whole philosophy jejune. It seems perfectly fine for high school juniors with Ayn Rand fantasies, but I feel it fails utterly in the real world. In other words, to me, "Libertarian think tank" is an oxymoron. On the other hand, I have some good friends who are staunch Libertarians, and sometimes they even give me free cigars (though I suppose this must be in exchange for some utility they get from my company--or maybe they just hope I die from lung cancer). So perhaps I am being a bit too harsh. Anyway, the point is, it's only fair to put my prejudice on the table before I respond.

    That said, I think that Mr. Nowrasteh is simply wrong that most--or even a significant portion--of asylum seekers are economic migrants. To be sure, asylum seekers come to the U.S. (as opposed to Namibia, for example) because they can settle here, get a job, and build a new life. But this does not make them economic migrants in the normal sense of the phrase. Economic migrants are not fleeing their country because their life or freedom is threatened; they are leaving for a better job.

    Stated another way, with all immigrants (including asylum seekers) there is a push and a pull. For refugees, the most important "push" factor is a threat to life or freedom in the home country. For economic migrants, the push is a bad economic situation. The pull for both groups is freedom, opportunity, peace, the ability to gain acceptance, and all the other tangibles and intangibles of "America."

    So why do I think that most asylum seekers are not economic migrants who file fraudulent asylum claims in order to circumvent immigration restrictions?

    The main reason, I must admit, is anecdotal. I have represented hundreds of asylum seekers, and while I have suspicions about the motivations of some clients, most clearly face threats in their home countries. Also, many of my clients held good jobs in their home countries and they are unlikely to achieve the same level of success in the United States (due to language barriers, lack of transferable skills, etc.).

    Another reason I believe that asylum seekers are not mere economic migrants is because countries that produce large numbers of asylum seekers have widespread human rights problems. The source country for the most asylum seekers in the U.S. is--by far--China. Of late, China has produced between 20 and 25% of affirmative asylum cases and a whopping 45% of defensive asylum grants in FY2013. China has a repressive government and--probably more importantly for purposes of this discussion--Congress passed a law to provide asylum to victims of forced family planning, and these people come almost exclusively from China. While the U.S. economy provides more opportunities than China's, the repressive nature of the government combined with a special law to help Chinese asylum seekers suggests that asylum applicants from China are more than just economic migrants--they are refugees.

    A possible counter argument here is that the increase in credible fear applicants, who have lately been overwhelming the asylum system, comes from people arriving from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which all have very low asylum grant rates. There are two reasons why I think this argument fails, however. First, many people seeking asylum from these countries face severe threats and persecution from gangs and cartels, or from crime and domestic violence. Such people are genuinely afraid (for good reason), but they rarely qualify for asylum since they cannot show that the feared harm is "on account of" a protected ground. Second, all these countries are very violent places. The less violent countries in the region--Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama--have weak economies compared to the U.S. (especially mi país Nicaragua, which is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere aside from Haiti). If Mr. Nowrasteh's theory is correct, we would expect these countries to be sending us comparable numbers of (fraudulent) asylum seekers, but they are not. To me, all this supports the notion that people leaving the region and seeking asylum in the U.S. are driven more by a fear of harm than by the desire for a better job.

    So in the end, while I am happy that the Cato Institute is thinking creatively about ways to preserve our asylum system, I am not convinced by their analysis. While a guest worker program (especially for Mexico and Central America) might marginally reduce the number of asylum seekers, the overlap between refugees and economic migrants is pretty minimal. If we want to reduce the number of asylum seekers at our Southern border, we should spend more time supporting good governance in the region and less time meddling in our neighbors' affairs.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
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