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US immigration

Asylum claims ‘have doubled’ at US border with Mexico, new data shows

  • But at the same time, the pace of people crossing illegally is steady, despite President Donald Trump’s effort to crack down on them
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 1:39pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 10:34pm

The number of migrants requesting asylum at ports of entry along the southwest border doubled in financial year 2018 from the previous year, according to Customs and Border Protection data released on Monday.

But the new data also show the percentage of foreigners who entered the country illegally before requesting asylum was the same in 2018, raising questions about the Donald Trump administration’s purely law enforcement-focused response to migrant caravans.

To try to stop what he has described as an invasion by mostly Central American migrants, the US president has spent hundreds of millions of dollars deploy more than 2,000 National Guard troops, nearly 6,000 military troops, and other federal agents to line the border with concertina wire and prevent large-scale illegal crossings.

The new data from CBP shows a different picture, however, where more migrants are doing exactly what the US government has asked them to do: present themselves at a port of entry to make their asylum claim. Of the more than 5,000 migrants who arrived in Tijuana in recent weeks, many are planning to apply for asylum in the US.

From 2000 to 2016, the US granted asylum to an average of 26,651 foreigners a year, according to Department of Homeland Security data.

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In financial year 2018, which ended in September, 38,269 people requested asylum at US ports of entry along the southern border, representing 31 per cent of those found “inadmissible” by port officers. In 2017, that number was 17,284, or 16 per cent of those found inadmissible by port officers.

Over the same time period, the pace of people crossing illegally before requesting asylum remained steady. In financial year 2018, 54,690 people entered the country illegally before requesting asylum, representing 14 per cent of all illegal border crossers that year. In 2017, that number was 38,300, or about 13 per cent of all illegal border crossers.

A customs official said the numbers show the new reality on the border, where thousands more people are trying to enter ports of entry and requesting asylum. But he said the government is not equipped to handle that rush of asylum seekers at the ports, forcing his agents to institute “queue management” systems that require migrants to wait on the Mexican side for days or weeks.

The official was asked why the government deployed thousands of troops and built temporary housing for enforcement actions, but has not made a similar effort to increase the number of migrants it can process for asylum at ports of entry.

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The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the new figures before they were publicly released, said any effort to improve asylum claims would take resources away from other priorities, like national security and drug interdiction.

“To shift resources away from those other competing priorities so that we would process more migrants … does come at a negative impact of those other missions,” the official said. “So every day we try to balance the right mix.”

Human rights groups have questioned that approach, with Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights calling it a “violation” of the government’s responsibilities to those who need help.

The number of asylum applications has skyrocketed in recent years, from 5,000 in 2008 to 97,000 in 2018, mostly fuelled by Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty.

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Federal law allows foreigners to request asylum once they reach US soil, whether they enter through a port of entry or cross illegally. The Trump administration tried to end asylum for those who enter illegally, but the move was blocked by a federal judge.

On Monday, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said the overall increase in asylum claims requires significant changes from Congress to help his agency deal with the flow.

“These numbers reflect a dramatic increase in initial fear claims by those encountered on the border, which is straining border security, immigration enforcement and courts, and other federal resources,” McAleenan said.