To win asylum, migrants like Mr. Colmenares must prove that being sent home would subject them to persecution based on their “race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a particular social group.” Being poor or wanting a better job is not enough.
Since taking office, Mr. Biden’s administration has confronted a wave of migrants from countries where the coronavirus pandemic decimated economies and livelihoods, such as India, Brazil and Colombia. More recently, crackdowns on political dissent in Cuba, Nicaragua, Russia and elsewhere have compelled people to seek asylum in the United States.
The U.S. asylum system, in theory, should work quickly. Those granted asylum would be given work permits, qualify for safety net benefits and eventually be allowed to apply for a green card and citizenship. Those who are denied asylum and do not qualify to stay in the United States through other programs would be quickly deported.
But that is not how it works. The longstanding asylum process, Mr. Mayorkas said, is “a very broken system.”
Migrants who cross the border between the official ports of entry are detained and given a background check. Some are deported on the basis of a pandemic-era rule put in place by Mr. Trump. For others, the law requires due process before they are sent home. Because there is simply not enough capacity to detain everyone; most of the rest are released into the United States to wait years for a hearing before an immigration judge that will determine their fate. The backlog in the immigration court system has increased to historic proportions, with 1.9 million pending cases, up from about 150,000 in 2001, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which tracks immigration data. Of those, about 750,000 are asylum cases, most of which have been pending for five years or longer.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work legally in the United States for about a year while they are pursuing their case. Studies have found that most asylum seekers appear at their hearings, but some who are denied asylum try to stay, working illegally.
Officials at the Justice Department, which oversees the immigration court, requested $177 million this year to add 100 judges and support staff members. That would increase the number of immigration judges to about 700, according to the department, which wrote in its budget request that “the historic backlog is not sustainable and requires additional resources so that justice may be done.”