Asylum Claims Jump Despite Trump’s Attempt to Limit Immigration

WASHINGTON — The number of migrants asking the United States for asylum out of fear of returning to their home countries jumped nearly 70 percent from 2017, according to Department of Homeland Security data released on Monday, despite Trump administration efforts to limit refugees.

Nearly 93,000 asylum seekers who crossed the border illegally or turned themselves in at official ports of entry in 2018 cited a credible fear of being targeted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or social group. That is up from nearly 56,000 migrants who asked for asylum last year because they feared returning home, the data shows.

Nearly 60 percent of all foreigners asking for asylum were people in families, according to officials with Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security.

Agency officials attributed the increase to smuggling organizations that exploit migrants’ hopes with assurances that they will be able to stay in the United States if they falsely claim they fear going home.

Immigration advocates, however, said the rise in asylum claims is a result of tens of thousands of people fleeing violence in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America.

Homeland Security officials said the increase in migrants at the southwest border had overwhelmed an antiquated system that was not intended to handle large numbers of people at a single time. They said the ports of entry, many of which were opened decades ago, were devised to process men traveling alone, not families or transgender people.

“These numbers reflect a dramatic increase in initial fear claims by those encountered on the border, which is straining border security, immigration enforcement, and courts and other federal resources,” said Kevin K. McAleenan, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner.

He said a “majority of these claims will not be successful” in the immigration process and called on Congress to overhaul the system.

The agency is relying on a process called “metering” to limit the number of people who can be processed daily for asylum. Thousands of migrants are waiting on the Mexican side of the border as Customs and Border Protection officers process small numbers of people — 40 to 100 — each day.

Immigration advocates accuse the Trump administration of being more aggressive with the metering system than officials under former President Barack Obama to slow the flow of migrants at ports of entry.

Since taking office nearly two years ago, Mr. Trump has railed against what he calls weak laws that allow migrants who are caught crossing illegally to claim asylum under false pretenses so they can be released into the United States. Because of a backlog in the immigration courts, migrants can sometimes wait for years for a judge to determine the validity of their asylum claim.

Last month, the administration, invoking national security powers meant to protect the United States against threats from abroad, announced new rules that gave Mr. Trump vast authority to deny asylum to nearly all migrants who illegally enter the country. Those who showed up at ports of entry were not affected by the regulations.

A federal court has issued a temporary restraining order against the new regulations, which draw upon the same authority Mr. Trump used just days after his inauguration to ban travel from several predominantly Muslim countries.

They are among the many ways the administration has tried to cut the number of asylum seekers.

In July, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it all but impossible for asylum seekers to gain entry into the United States by citing fears of domestic abuse or gang violence.

“An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family or other personal circumstances,” Mr. Sessions wrote. “Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

Mr. Trump has fumed for months about the surge of immigrants crossing into the United States from Mexico. In October, he ordered nearly 6,000 active duty troops to the southwest border to help Customs and Border Protection prevent the migrants from entering illegally.

Just over 6,000 people in a caravan of migrants from Honduras have made their way to the border town of Tijuana, Mexico. Late last month, a peaceful march by migrants waiting to be processed for asylum veered out of control, as hundreds of people overwhelmed a Mexican police blockade and ran toward the border crossing that leads into San Diego.

In response, officers with Customs and Border Protection shut down the border crossing in both directions and fired tear gas to push back migrants from the border fence. The border was reopened later that day.