What Is Asylum and Who Can Seek It? Explaining Trump’s New Restrictions

WASHINGTON — In an effort to stem the flow of Central American migrants coming into the United States, the Trump administration has focused on limiting who can apply for asylum and instituting detention policies that officials hope will deter people from seeking refuge in the country. On Tuesday, Attorney General William P. Barr issued an order that could keep thousands of migrants seeking asylum in jail while they wait for their requests to be evaluated by a judge.

Asylum is a legal process by which people fleeing persecution in their home country may seek to live in safety in the United States. International treaties and federal law require the government to evaluate a claim for asylum from anyone who enters the United States, whether that person arrives legally, through a port of entry or illegally by crossing the border and being apprehended.

People who are already in the country legally may apply for asylum directly with an agency called United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Migrants who arrive illegally and were apprehended, or have been told they will be deported, may ask for asylum as a way of avoiding being sent home.

Soon after asking for asylum, migrants are usually interviewed by a trained asylum officer to determine whether they have a “credible fear” of persecution in their home country “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” If the officer determines that there is a “significant possibility” that the migrants will be able to prove such persecution, a court date will be set for a final determination about whether they will be granted asylum.

More than 75 percent of migrants pass the initial screening because of congressionally mandated rules that set a fairly low bar for approval to ensure that persecuted people have the opportunity to apply for refuge in the United States. Trump administration officials argue that the credible-fear screening should be far less generous.

Migrants who pass a credible-fear screening after being apprehended trying to cross the border illegally have in the past been released from detention to wait for their final hearing. A huge backlog in immigration court cases — approaching 900,000 cases — has meant that some asylum seekers must wait years for their claim to be heard. After a period of time, the migrants are given permission to work legally while they wait.

The Trump administration has tried to keep more asylum seekers in detention while they wait for their day in court, in part because officials argue that many migrants disappear before their hearing, becoming permanently undocumented immigrants. The Tuesday night decision about bail by Mr. Barr is part of that effort to prevent asylum seekers from getting out of jail.

Under federal law and court rulings, families and unaccompanied children who seek asylum may not be detained for longer than 20 days. So most are released from detention to await their asylum hearings.

Mr. Trump’s decision last summer to separate migrant children from their parents at the border was an attempt to get around those restrictions. Once the children were separated and sent to shelters, the parents were subject to rules that allowed authorities to detain them for longer periods of time.

A federal judge in California halted the practice last summer and the president issued an executive order reversing the policy of routinely separating families after an uproar in which critics called it “inhumane,” “cruel” and “evil.” Mr. Trump has publicly said he has no plans to go back to family separations.

People seeking refuge in the United States must show that they have a “well-founded fear” of being persecuted if they were to return to their own country. That is often demonstrated through direct testimony about the situation they expect to face if they return home, as well as other evidence of the situation they faced before coming to the United States.

Immigration judges typically deny 80 percent of the applications, weeding out fraudulent claims and ineligible applicants. When the process was devised, there was a fairly short period between the initial screening and an appearance in immigration court. But that has changed significantly, and a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases has led to asylum seekers waiting years to appear in court.

Yes, although the Trump administration is trying to change that. Currently, if an immigration judge approves a migrant’s asylum request, the migrant is eligible to receive public welfare benefits, such as food stamps and Medicaid. In some cases, the amount of benefits or the amount of time the benefits are available varies from state to state.

The Trump administration, however, has proposed a new rule that could deny public benefits to legal immigrants, including those granted asylum. Last year, the Trump administration announced that if immigrants used public assistance, such as a Section 8 housing voucher, they could be denied a green card, forcing some immigrants who are legally in the country to choose between their own welfare and the ability to live and work in the United States.

After one year, a migrant who has been granted asylum is allowed to apply for a green card to become a permanent legal resident in the United States.

The difference between the two types of migrants largely depends on where a person applies for safe haven. Refugees make their application outside the United States. Asylum seekers are people who are already in the country or arrive at an American port of entry. Both must prove that they realistically fear persecution in their own country.

Mr. Trump and his aides have also been trying to reduce the number of refugees who can seek protection by coming to the United States each year. In the wake of the refugee crisis created by the Syrian civil war, President Barack Obama had increased the cap on the maximum number of refugees to 110,000 before he left office. Mr. Trump has lowered the cap to 30,000.

Once people are granted asylum, the government does not track when they die or move out of the country, making it difficult to know how many people currently living in the United States are in the country because they were granted asylum at some point.

According to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, roughly 637,000 people were granted asylum between 1990 and 2017.

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