U.S. officials prepping legislation to revamp asylum system

Migrants, mostly Venezuelans, participate in a caravan on the banks of the Rio Bravo river in Ciudad Juarez
Migrants, mostly Venezuelans, participate in a caravan, with the intention of turning in themselves to U.S. Border Patrol agents, on the banks of the Rio Bravo river in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico February 8, 2023. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

WASHINGTON, Feb 9 (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden's administration is developing a sweeping bill that would revamp the country's asylum system to speed up the resolution of claims in large-scale processing centers at the border with Mexico, two U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials told Reuters.

The effort emerged from ongoing Biden administration discussions to reimagine asylum as border crossings have reached record highs and immigration courts face steep backlogs, said the two sources, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. U.S. officials traveled to Europe last month, including a stop in the Netherlands, to examine systems there, they said.

Biden, a Democrat, is expected to seek reelection in 2024 and has toughened his approach to border security, introducing new immigration measures in recent weeks as Republicans have escalated attacks over the issue after taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The legislation - which remains in a conceptual phase - could also include different procedures for asylum seekers based on nationality, with migrants from countries with typically higher rates of approval given more freedom of movement while they await the outcome of their cases, the sources said.

Those with better chances would potentially be housed in apartments or less restrictive settings than a detention center, the two officials said. Migrants deemed less likely to win asylum could be processed and deported quickly. In the 2022 fiscal year, for example, 53% of Chinese asylum seekers won their cases in immigration court while only 8% of Hondurans did, according to government data.

"It's a total rethink of the approach and is not constrained by current laws," one of the DHS officials said.

The sources stressed that the bill remained in development and that details could change before it is finalized. Blas Nunez-Neto, a top DHS policy official, is one of the people leading the legislative effort, according to one of the DHS officials and another person familiar with the matter.

DHS spokesperson Marsha Espinosa downplayed the asylum legislation discussions.

"DHS is always exploring ways to improve our asylum system, but no proposal is under serious consideration," she said.

Espinosa said the administration remains committed to passing an immigration reform bill Biden sent to Congress shortly after taking office in 2021, although that bill has failed to gain traction.

The timing of eventual asylum legislation, or whether it would win support among Republicans or Democrats in Congress, remains unclear.

The goal of the effort is to open a conversation with Congress to create an asylum system that is "fair, fast and functioning," said another DHS official directly involved in the planning.

The official stressed that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas or the White House could ultimately quash the bill and acknowledged the challenges of passing legislation in a divided Congress.

"We are still in the very early phases of this and it could be something that people look at and say, 'No, we're not going to do that.'"

The prospective Biden asylum bill could also potentially incorporate a requirement that migrants seek asylum in countries they pass through if protections are available elsewhere, another person familiar with the effort said.

Immigrant advocates have criticized that idea, saying it is similar to "transit bans" proposed during the Republican administration of then-President Donald Trump. Advocates have also raised concerns about rapid asylum processing, saying it could unfairly lead to the deportation of migrants with valid claims.


In January, Biden rolled out new border restrictions in combination with legal pathways for certain migrants, which led to a sharp reduction in the number of people caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

The new Biden restrictions, which rely on a COVID-19 order known as Title 42, allow U.S. authorities to expel migrants from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua to Mexico without the chance to seek U.S. asylum. Before that, Mexico had mostly accepted the returns of Mexicans, some Central Americans and, more recently, Venezuelans.

However, the Title 42 order is being challenged in court and it remains unclear whether it will remain in place if the COVID public health emergency ends on May 11 as planned.

The Biden administration has said it wants to end Title 42 and replace it with a more established rapid deportation process known as "expedited removal." U.S. officials since last year have pressed Mexico to accept non-Mexicans via expedited removal once Title 42 terminates, two U.S. officials told Reuters.

Roberto Velasco, a senior foreign ministry official in Mexico, traveled to Washington this week to discuss a range of issues involving both nations. He said in a statement that "there are ongoing conversations" about migration policy and that no decisions had been made about next steps.

Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Jonathan Oatis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Ted Hesson is an immigration reporter for Reuters, based in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on the policy and politics of immigration, asylum and border security. Prior to joining Reuters in 2019, Ted worked for the news outlet POLITICO, where he also covered immigration. His articles have appeared in POLITICO Magazine, The Atlantic and VICE News, among other publications. Ted holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and bachelor's degree from Boston College.