WASHINGTON (CN) – Immigration officials called Tuesday for Congress to tighten asylum laws, clashing with Democrats who said their concerns are overstated and that the changes would hurt people fleeing dangerous countries.
L. Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security this afternoon that the current standard for asylum seekers requires little more than a “possibility of a possibility.”
Claiming that the system encourages people to apply for asylum even if they do not qualify, Cissna said that his office is dealing with a backlog because applications tripled between 2014 and 2017.
Cissna noted that only 25 percent of applicants are granted asylum after demonstrating a credible fear in their home country, but roughly 80 percent receive preliminary approval.
Of the preliminary group, he added, 50 percent never ultimately file an asylum claim and many of those that do never appear for their court date.
“The whole idea of a credible-fear system was to give some protection to people who have legitimate fear of persecution in their home country when they were at the border so that they would not be expeditiously removed with everybody else,” Cissna said. “The reality is that the number of people coming to the border seeking this type of protection and making these types of claims is greatly overwhelming our ability to hold them throughout the process. And if you can’t hold them, you have to let them go. If you let them go, you end up with a problem.”
Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan, D-Calif., disputed Cissna’s description of the asylum standard. Citing her work representing an asylum seeker while working pro bono as a lawyer, Barragan said the standard is difficult to meet, especially because people are not entitled to counsel during the proceedings.
“I had unlimited resources at a big law firm, I could hire experts, and even then I couldn’t get asylum,” Barragan said.
An immigration bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would make several changes to the asylum system, and Cissna endorsed the proposals at the hearing.
The panel also heard testimony today from Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Thomas Homan.
A week after President Donald Trump stirred controversy by referring to members of MS-13 as “animals,” Homan was one of several officials today who cited the violent gang in their testimony as a reason to tighten immigration laws.
Homan also raised concerns that suspected terrorists could use immigration policy like the asylum system to arrive at the border and enter the United States with limited resistance.
“It’s not just an immigration issue, it’s a national-security issue, ” Homan said. “People that want to harm this country can use those same pathways, right, that are being bankrolled by the lack of a strong policy.”
But Barragan and fellow California Democrat Rep. Luis Correa said holding up gang members and terrorists as examples of a need for stricter immigration policy ignores that many people do seek asylum at the border because they are genuinely afraid of the conditions they are fleeing.
“We love to talk about this issue about the MS-13 gangs, we love to paint immigrants as criminals,” Barragan said. “That is not the complete facts and that is very offensive for me to see continuing to happen.”