US Needs to Better Investigate Asylum Seekers, GAO Reports

Asylum Seekers and Refugees: What’s the Difference?

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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has “limited capabilities” to detect attempts by aliens to fraudulently gain asylum in order to remain in the U.S., according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Asylum-Seekers and Refugees: What’s the Difference?

Persons seeking asylum – asylees -- are aliens already in the U.S. or at a port of entry who are unable or unwilling to return to their home nation because of a well-founded fear of persecution and seek the protection of the United States.

To be eligible for asylum, the fear of persecution must be based on the alien's race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. An alien granted asylum is eligible to adjust to lawful permanent resident (green card) status after one year of continuous presence in the United States. Under current federal law, only 10,000 asylees per year can be granted lawful permanent resident status.

Refugees are persons who have fled their home nation because of the same persecution or fear of persecution suffered by asylees. Like asylees, refugees are eligible to apply for lawful permanent resident status after one year of continuous presence in the United States. The maximum number of refugees accepted into the U.S. is set by the President of the United States in consultation with – but not the approval of -- Congress.

The Asylum Fraud Problem

Applications for asylum are individually evaluated by immigration officers in the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and immigration judges in the Department of Justice (DOJ).

But according to the GAO’s report to Congress, this asylee evaluation step is the source of the asylum fraud problem.

DHS and DOJ both “have limited capability to detect and prevent asylum fraud and both agencies’ efforts to date have focused on case-by-case fraud detection rather than more strategic, risk-based approaches,” wrote the GAO.

Volume of Asylum Applicants Soaring

As applications for asylum have increased by 130% from about 47,118 in 2010 to 108,152 in 2014, DHS and DOJ officers are too often pressured to make rushed decisions, often based only on the alien’s statement, noted the GAO. In-depth investigations of the immigrant’s background, even if done, are often ignored.

The GAO also reported that in September 2015, the DHS and USCIS had a backlog of 106,121 pending applications for asylum, of which 64,254 had exceeded the legally required time limits for consideration. “USCIS plans to hire additional staff to address the backlog,” wrote the GAO.

Critics of the process argue that illegal aliens taking advantage of this “rubberstamping” of asylum requests in order to gain lawful permanent residency is driving the rapid increase in applications.

Bad Immigration Attorneys Escaping Prosecution

The GAO’s investigation revealed that federal immigration judges and officials had granted asylum to 4,538 aliens who had been represented by immigration attorneys previously convicted of submitting fraudulent information of asylum applications.

In addition, the DOJ rarely tried to prosecute either aliens or attorneys for submitting fraudulent applications for asylum.

Terror Risk Not Recognized by DHS, DOJ

The GAO also found that DHS and DOJ officials apparently failed to recognize the potential terror threats posed by granting fraudulent applications for asylum.

But that threat did not go unrecognized by some top members of Congress.

“The effective rubberstamping of asylum applications is one of the root causes of the ongoing border surge and it also carries with it serious national security concerns. Terrorism experts agree that the asylum process is a vulnerability that terrorists have and will continue to exploit to gain entry into the United States,” stated House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) in a press release.

What the GAO Recommended

As you might expect, the GAO recommended that the DHS and DOJ start conducting regular assessments of asylum fraud risks, that the DHS, “among other things,” come up with tools for detecting asylum fraud patterns, and specific staff instructions for preventing it.

Both the DHS and DOJ agreed with all of the GAO’s recommendations. Of course, agreeing is not doing. Doing usually takes a lot longer. 

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "US Needs to Better Investigate Asylum Seekers, GAO Reports." ThoughtCo, Jul. 25, 2016, Longley, Robert. (2016, July 25). US Needs to Better Investigate Asylum Seekers, GAO Reports. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "US Needs to Better Investigate Asylum Seekers, GAO Reports." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 21, 2017).