US Government Having Trouble Detecting Asylum Fraud as Claims Increase
By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
For many Americans in their 40’s or older, the term “asylum” brings back memories of the Cold War and a time when defections by high-ranking individuals from communist countries were common. Communism still exists, and U.S. immigration law still allows judges to grant asylum to the persecuted. However, the process of requesting and being granted asylum has been made much more difficult since the fall of the Berlin Wall made the legal definition of government oppression and persecution more murky. Worse yet, the U.S. government is having trouble identifying asylum claims being made by individuals using this murkiness to their advantage.
On Dec. 2, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 96-page study that concluded “neither U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services [USCIS] nor the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department agency that oversees immigration courts, conduct regular fraud risk assessments.” Part of the problem is that USCIS still uses a paper-based filing system that allows major fraud indicators to fall through the cracks that might otherwise be caught in an electronic database. Even more disturbing: The GAO review found that more than 4,500 people were awarded asylum in 2014 despite being associated with lawyers or document preparers arrested that same year in an immigration fraud investigation in New York, per a Yahoo News summary of the report.
Not that asylum fraud is a new problem, but it has become more problematic since the rise and expansion of transnational criminal organizations—especially those operating in Latin America. Making an asylum determination used to be easier for immigration judges, who have to determine if an individual is being persecuted or his life is being threatened in his home country on the basis of his race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, or membership in a particular social group. When dealing with Soviets, Cubans, North Koreans, and in most cases Chinese nationals, these determinations were relatively quick and simple.
However, the nature of global conflict has changed considerably since the end of the Cold War. There are still cases of clear government-sanctioned violence and persecution, as in the cases of Sudan and Somalia, to provide just two examples. However, asylum requests by Mexican nationals and individuals from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have skyrocketed in the past few years, and in the case of Mexico are doubling and almost tripling each year. Gang and drug cartel-related violence have increased in the last decade just as dramatically in these countries, and their citizens are looking to the U.S. for solace.
However, where things get tricky in these cases is the nature of the persecution—as well as the nature of the relationship between the governments involved. Can and should asylum be granted if the government wasn’t necessarily directly involved in the persecution, but either looked the other way or was in collusion with the criminal groups doing the persecuting? And what if that corrupt government is one of our closest political and economic allies?
To make matters more complicated, this gray area leaves more leeway for fraudulent applications by individuals who claim they will be tortured by government entities in their home country, when in reality they just don’t want to get deported. There are many checkpoints, so to speak, where an asylum applicant’s claim is verified—with the first being at the U.S. port of entry where he is processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. If the officer makes a “credible fear” determination in the applicant’s favor, then the process of placing that applicant in front of an immigration judge begins. He may be able to obtain an attorney, but many asylum applicants either can’t afford one or don’t know how to obtain one. It may also take years for the applicant to see the inside of a courtroom, as there is currently a backlog of roughly 300,000 cases that need to be reviewed by only 276 U.S. immigration judges.
Throughout this process, applicants involved in fraudulent cases can be weeded out, but the GAO report indicated USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) Directorate officers they spoke with at all eight asylum offices told the GAO they have limited guidance with respect to fraud. The FDNS has also “not established clear fraud detection responsibilities for its immigration officers in asylum offices.” The GAO ultimately recommended that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice conduct regular fraud risk assessments and that DHS, among other things, implement tools for detecting fraud patterns.
Given the annual increase of asylum applications and their complexity based on ever changing geopolitics, making these changes quickly benefits both the U.S. government and asylum applicants with truly valid claims.