A Bipartisan Door Opens to Asylum Reform
Firing a blast from the past, Clinton-era immigration boss Doris Meissner wants to school the Trump administration on how to handle an expected flood of asylum cases at border.“Hard-line immigration measures seek a shock-and-awe solution to a problem that will not be solved by bombast,” Meissner asserted from her perch at the Migration Policy Institute.Her broadside came days before President Donald Trump’s proclamation banning migrants from applying for asylum outside of official ports of entry. Far from bombastic, the new rules exempt unaccompanied children and individuals deemed to have a higher “reasonable fear” standard under the international Convention Against Torture.Though armchair quarterbacking is a club sport in Washington, D.C., Meissner does offer a few constructive ideas on how to deal with the impending migrant caravan from Central America. Partisan rhetoric aside, she states the obvious — the U.S. asylum system is “in crisis in the face of growing backlogs of cases that take years to complete.”Meissner admits that reforms implemented during her tenure as head of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (1993-2000) are inadequate. “The asylum system urgently needs to be retooled again,” she says.The former INS chief even agrees with the current administration’s strategy of processing asylum cases on a last-in, first-out basis, and she promotes the authority of the executive branch to act where Congress won’t.Taking two more steps, Meissner recommends:1.U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Asylum Corps officers who conduct the initial screening interview at the border (known as the credible-fear determination) should be the ones to complete full adjudication.“Presently, asylum seekers who pass the credible-fear test are referred to immigration courts, where they are at the end of an all-time high backlog of more than 760,000 cases. Because of a remarkably inefficient process, immigration judges must begin fact-finding on these cases from scratch, likely years down the line,” she notes. “Allowing the expert USCIS professionals who make the initial adjudication to see the case through to completion would greatly increase the speed and effectiveness of the system.”2. Establishing a border court division to handle border asylum case appeals. The goal would be to meet the statutory standard of six months or less for deciding such cases.“Timely, fair processing would send a signal to would-be migrants that those who do not qualify for protection will not succeed in remaining in the United States. This is what constitutes meaningful deterrence,” Meissner reasons.Helpful as these procedural moves may be, the border game goes deeper. The Center for Immigration Studies found, for example, that in 40 percent of all immigration-court completions in FY 2018 originating with a credible-fear referral (13,595 cases), no asylum applications were even filed.”They do not want asylum; they want in the door,” concluded Andrew Arthur, a CIS researcher.FAIR President Dan Stein cut to the chase: “Until our overwhelmed asylum system ceases to incentivize entry by those with meritless claims, our judicial system will continue to be overloaded, and our border will remain easily exploitable.”As for Ms. Meissner, a note of caution is warranted. When serving as Bill Clinton’s INS commissioner, she boasted of “keeping open America’s front door while slamming shut the back.” To which Stein jibed at the time: “Everywhere she closes a door, she opens a window.”The Washington Post article that carried Stein’s riposte cited Meissner’s controversial plan to release 1,500 nonviolent criminals to reduce crowding in detention centers, as well as a naturalization drive that mistakenly allowed hundreds of criminals to become citizens through flawed background checks. Meissner’s agency also was lambasted for a malfunctioning fingerprinting process and a computer system so antiquated that officials couldn’t determine exactly how many applicants they had. All this despite a doubling of the INS workforce and a tripling of its budget.Still, the INS under Meissner did reduce naturalization application wait times from two years to nine months and cut backlogs by more than half.If the Trump administration can learn from Meissner’s experience (and mistakes), it ought to proceed with all deliberate speed. America’s asylum mess is big enough for everyone to grab a broom and get to work.
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