Even as the number of people seeking asylum at the southern border has grown, Congress has done little to change how the U.S. treats asylum seekers.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso) on Tuesday introduced a bill, the “Re-imagining Asylum Processing Act,” that proposes to overhaul how asylum claims are made and treated at the Southwest border.
The bill would create five new “humanitarian processing centers” at the border, where asylum seekers would be transferred on the day they arrive and where they would meet with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers. These professionals — not border or immigration law enforcement agents — would provide screenings to determine whether a migrant could qualify for asylum or other immigration relief.
“The focus on hardening the border hasn’t changed anything in terms of migration flows,” she said in September. “All it has done is create chaos and inhumanity at the border.”
At the time, the Biden administration was struggling with the arrival of thousands of Haitian and other migrants who had set up an encampment in Del Rio, Texas, in hopes of seeking asylum in the U.S. The migrants weren’t attempting to evade law enforcement; they were turning themselves in.
U.S. ports of entry have been closed to asylum-seeking migrants since 2016, when the Obama administration instituted a policy known as “metering” to block the arrival of Haitians at California ports. The Trump administration later expanded the practice at ports of entry along the Southwest border.
In emptying the Del Rio encampment, the Biden administration expelled more than 4,000 Haitians to Haiti, while others were released and placed in removal proceedings. Those released were given notices to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices around the country. Some were strapped with a GPS ankle bracelet or enrolled in other alternatives to detention that allow the U.S. government to track their movement.
Advocates say few, if any, met with an asylum officer or received the credible fear screening needed to start the asylum process.
Escobar said her new bill is a result of “a lengthy and inclusive process” that included ideas shared by advocates, legal experts and the House judiciary committee, as well as what she has witnessed in visits to existing border processing centers.
“If we continue down this path of treating families and children and pregnant mothers as criminals, that’s not just costly, but it’s ineffective and it’s inhumane,” she said.
Democrats in Congress are trying to push several immigration proposals into Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget package. Both Escobar and immigrant advocates have stressed that passing reforms this year — before next year’s midterm elections — is crucial.
“We have seen complete inaction from Congress in reforming outdated immigration laws,” Escobar said in September. “I truly feel this is the year we have to get it done.”
Under the “Re-imagining Asylum Processing Act,” the five humanitarian processing centers would provide asylum seekers with an opportunity to
The act limits the amount of time an asylum seeker can be held in a humanitarian processing center to 15 days, pending the determination interview with the asylum officer. If an interview can’t be conducted that quickly, the asylum seeker would be released with a notice to appear for the interview.
Escobar has been critical of another border immigration bill that received bipartisan support but frustrated some immigrant advocates for its focus on keeping asylum seekers in law enforcement control.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act in April alongside Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and two House members from Texas — U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) and Tony Gonzales (R-San Antonio). The bill would establish four regional processing centers along the southern border in high-traffic Border Patrol sectors, where agents would conduct criminal history checks and migrants would receive medical screenings, asylum interviews and credible fear determinations.
“The current influx of migrants has stretched our law enforcement agents and border communities to a breaking point,” Gonzales said at the time of the bill’s introduction in April. “To restore order, Congress must enact commonsense measures that relieve the bottlenecks in our immigration system and allow our DHS agents to focus on their national security responsibilities. We must take steps towards creating an immigration system that allows people to safely and legally come to the United States.”
The bill has gotten little traction this year.
“What gives me hope is there is a recognition in that bill that the system is broken and that we’ve got to fix it, and I agree wholeheartedly with that,” Escobar said. “The problem with that bill, is that while it takes a tiny step in the right direction, it still is in many ways reliant on the same system that is inefficient, expensive and inhumane.”
Escobar said her bill “recognizes that we need a humanitarian process that is not run by law enforcement,” that would allow border agents to focus on their duties enforcing the border rather than processing asylum seekers.
The “Re-imagining Asylum Processing Act” addresses one aspect of myriad reforms Escobar and immigrant advocates say are needed to the nation’s immigration system, to include resolving the status of millions of unauthorized immigrants in the country, opening up additional legal pathways for immigrants and addressing the root causes of migration.
“The United States since the Clinton era has limited people’s legal avenues,” Escobar said.
“When people don’t have a legal avenue they are going to try avenues that are more dangerous and more desperate,” she said. “People say, ‘Well they should get in line.’ That shows lack of an acknowledgement that there is no line. The legal ways have been eliminated for them. If we want to see order restored, then we have to open up more legal pathways.”
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