US officials are preparing legislation to revamp the asylum system
By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is developing a sweeping bill that would overhaul the country’s asylum system to speed up the processing of claims at large-scale processing centers on the border with Mexico, two U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials said. officials to Reuters.
The effort emerged from ongoing Biden administration discussions to restore asylum as border crossings have reached record highs and immigration courts face steep backlogs, said the two sources, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. U.S. officials traveled to Europe last month, including a stop in the Netherlands, to examine systems there, they said.
Biden, a Democrat, is expected to seek re-election in 2024 and has toughened his approach to border security by introducing new immigration measures in recent weeks as Republicans have escalated attacks on the issue after taking control of the US House of Representatives.
The legislation – which remains in a conceptual stage – could also include different procedures for asylum seekers based on nationality, with migrants from countries with typically higher approval rates given more freedom of movement while awaiting the outcome of their cases, the sources said.
Those with better chances would potentially be housed in apartments or less restrictive settings than a detention center, the two officials said. Migrants deemed less likely to win asylum could be processed and deported quickly. In fiscal year 2022, for example, 53% of Chinese asylum seekers won their cases in immigration court, while only 8% of Hondurans did, according to government data.
“It is a total rethinking of the approach and is not limited by current laws,” said one of the DHS officials.
The sources stressed that the bill remained under development and that the details could change before it is finalized. Blas Nunez-Neto, a top DHS policy official, is one of the people leading the legislative effort, according to one of the DHS officials and another person familiar with the matter.
The White House and Nunez-Neto did not immediately comment. The timing of any legislation, or whether it would win support among Republicans or Democrats in Congress, remains unclear.
The new Biden asylum law could also potentially incorporate a requirement that migrants seek asylum in countries they pass through if protection is available elsewhere, the third person familiar with the effort said.
Immigrant advocates have criticized the idea, saying it is similar to “transit bans” proposed during the Republican administration of then-President Donald Trump. Advocates have also raised concerns about fast-track asylum processing, saying it could unfairly lead to the deportation of migrants with valid claims.
In January, Biden rolled out new border restrictions combined with legal pathways for certain migrants, leading to a sharp reduction in the number of people caught crossing the US-Mexico border illegally.
The new Biden restrictions, which rely on a COVID-19 order known as Title 42, allow U.S. authorities to deport migrants from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua to Mexico without the ability to seek U.S. asylum. Before then, Mexico had mostly accepted the return of Mexicans, some Central Americans and, more recently, Venezuelans.
However, the Title 42 order is being challenged in court, and it remains unclear whether it will remain in place if the COVID health emergency ends on May 11 as planned.
The Biden administration has said it wants to end Title 42 and replace it with a more established fast-track deportation process known as “expedited removal.” U.S. officials since last year have been pushing Mexico to accept non-Mexicans via expedited removal when Title 42 expires, two U.S. officials told Reuters.
Roberto Velasco, a senior Mexican foreign ministry official, traveled to Washington this week to discuss a range of issues involving both nations. He said in a statement that “there are ongoing conversations” about migration policy and that no decisions have been made on next steps.
(This story has been re-filed to correct a typo in Nunez-Neto’s name in Episode 8)
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Jonathan Oatis)