The Biden administration on Thursday unveiled new procedures to handle asylum claims at the U.S. southern border, hoping to decide cases in months instead of years — though some advocates fear a focus on speed could detract from accuracy.
Until now, asylum officers have only done initial screenings for asylum and other forms of humanitarian relief for border arrivals.
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The change could have a far-reaching impact, but administration officials said they will start slowly and without additional resources. It will take effect 60 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register, which will occur next week.
The administration estimated last year that it would need to hire 800 more employees for asylum officers to handle about 75,000 cases a year. Without more money and new positions, it is unclear how much impact the move will have at first.
The United States has been the world's most popular destination for asylum-seekers since 2017, according to the U.N. refugee agency, putting enormous strain on immigration courts. The court backlog has soared to nearly 1.7 million cases.
“The current system for handling asylum claims at our borders has long needed repair,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, whose department includes asylum officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said the new procedures will ease burdens on immigration courts, which are part of the Justice Department. Asylum claims for people who are not detained take an average of nearly four years to decide.
“This rule advances our efforts to ensure that asylum claims are processed fairly, expeditiously and consistent with due process,” Garland said.
Under the new rules, asylum officers expect to decide cases in 90 days. Rejected applicants will be sent to immigration judges, who also expect to issue decisions in 90 days.
Judges will be able to complete cases faster with detailed documentation from asylum officers, officials said.
Some immigration advocates hailed the changes as a way to ensure people fleeing persecution won't have to wait years to receive asylum or other protections in the United States. Others said it's pushing people through a complex immigration process far too quickly for them to get lawyers who can assist them in making an asylum claim.
“(It) risks sacrificing accurate decision-making for its narrative of speed,” Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First, said in a statement. “Imposing unrealistic deadlines will lead to mistaken decisions, additional adjudication to correct those mistakes, and the improper return to persecution of people who qualify for asylum."
Those wanting tougher limits on U.S. immigration said they feared asylum officers weren't as prepared to detect fraudulent claims as immigration judges, something agency officials said wasn't the case.
It was also unclear how asylum officers would be able to handle increased responsibilities without more staff. They already have a hefty workload deciding cases of people who are already settled in the United States.
The new procedures, which generated more than 5,300 public comments after they were proposed in August, may face legal obstacles. Many changes to the immigration system during the Trump and Biden administrations have been successfully challenged, delayed or modified in courts.