U.S. unveils rule to speed up asylum processing and deportations at border

WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) - The Biden administration on Thursday rolled out a sweeping new regulation that aims to speed up asylum processing and deportations at the U.S.-Mexico border, amid a record number of migrants seeking to enter the United States.

The announcement of the new rulecame as U.S. officials are debating whether to end a separate COVID-era policy that has blocked most asylum claims at the border. The asylum overhaul could provide a faster way to process border crossers if the COVID order is ended.

The final asylum rule, which will go into effect in late May, will authorize asylum officers to accept or reject migrants' claims for protection soon after they cross the border, in an effort to resolve them in months rather than years by bypassing backlogged U.S. immigration courts.

The administration of Democratic President Joe Biden says is a humane way to deal with the rising number of attempted border crossings, which have hit records and fueled attacks from Republicans aiming to take control of Congress in the November midterm elections. read more

The new policy faced criticism from groups that favor more immigration restrictions as well as from some pro-immigrant advocacy organizations, and may be challenged in court.

Most migrants caught at the southwest border come from Mexico and Central America, but an increasing number are arriving from farther places and seeking refuge, including in recent weeks Ukrainians fleeing Russia's invasion of their country, an action that Moscow calls a "special military operation."

Under the new rule, which is being issued jointly by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice, more migrants, including families, will be placed in a process known as "expedited removal" to resolve cases more quickly. It will not apply to unaccompanied children.

"The current system for handling asylum claims at our borders has long needed repair," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.

Some immigrant rights advocates oppose the fast-track process, which aims to process cases within 90 days, fearing it will lead to more deportations.

The new rule "risks sacrificing accurate decision-making for its narrative of speed,"said Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First.

While migrants denied asylum will get another chance to make their case before an immigration judge, those cases will also be expedited with a goal of resolving them within 90 days.

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) official who briefed reporters on Wednesday, speaking under condition of anonymity, said the new system will be phased in gradually and initially be applied only to a small number of migrants.

The Biden administration said in an earlier draft of the measure that it anticipated needing to hire about 2,000 additional asylum officers and support personnel, which would more than double the number working now. read more

The USCIS official who briefed reporters did not give details about the status of additional hiring or funding.

Biden has kept a controversial order known as Title 42, which was put in place in March 2020 by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump. It allows U.S. authorities to quickly expel most migrants caught crossing the border to Mexico or other countries to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The Biden administration is leaning toward ending the order in the wake of recent court decisions that complicate its implementation, but no final decision has been made with a looming deadline next week to renew, modify or terminate it. read more

Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; additional reporting by Kristina Cooke, Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Aurora Ellis and Leslie Adler

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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.