Nearly a year after the U.S. experienced a surge of illegal immigration from Central America, public officials are still grappling with the fallout.
Under significant political pressure, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson announced last week that his agency would be making “important reforms” to its detention policy. Specifically, the Secretary declared that DHS would be changing its rules regarding families with children that claim asylum in the U.S.
Currently, individuals can come forward once they have entered the U.S. to “affirmatively” claim asylum. They can also claim asylum “defensively” during the deportation process, in which case they must be held in a detention facility until an asylum officer can hear their appeal and establish a “credible fear of persecution or torture” in their home country.
Under the new DHS plan, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) personnel must conduct “credible fear and reasonable fear interviews” with families in a detention center. The interviews moreover must happen “within a reasonable timeframe” to ensure that the detention process is “short-term in most cases.” If family members can make a successful plea, they can be released after posting an appropriate monetary bond or fulfilling some other condition.
Asylum is an important humanitarian tool and a critical component of the U.S. immigration system. Americans have always been generous in times of international crisis, welcoming asylum-seekers and giving them an opportunity to rebuild their lives.
At the same time, asylum status needs to be reserved for those who truly need it because of persecution they face.
Under U.S. law, individuals are eligible for asylum if they have been persecuted in their native country or fear persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. In 2013, the U.S. granted asylum to exactly 25,199 people
The “reforms” being trumpeted by Secretary Johnson need additional scrutiny. First, the new plan must ensure that USCIS personnel use the same high standards when determining a credible fear of persecution. Given the shortened timeline for conducting interviews, there may be an incentive to relax protocol and screening criteria simply to speed up the adjudication process.
Second, the decision to release unlawful immigrants needs to be seriously reconsidered. While having unlawful immigrants post a monetary bond is at least something to encourage them to attend their court hearings, it is still far from adequate.
Past reports indicate that countless immigrants abscond and never return for their hearing in court or removal. This is backed up by new data that shows that as many as 84 percent of families who were released from custody absconded, a stunningly high failure rate.
As a result, not all individuals should be released, since detention is the most effective way of ensuring attendance at immigration proceedings. If individuals with a credible fear claim are going to be released, then the most robust alternative accountability methods—such as GPS ankle bracelets—should be considered in lieu of a mere bond, which many unlawful immigrants view as little more than fee to pay before running from their hearings.
Asylum is a valuable policy that helps to project U.S. dedication to human rights around the world. Under no circumstances should it be watered down, and it should not be used as an excuse to further weaken the detention and deportation of illegal immigrants.
Ryan Spaude is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.