By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden's administration will unveil a major overhaul of the U.S. asylum system on Wednesday, including a plan to double staff, in an effort to speed processing at the U.S.-Mexico border where migrant arrests have soared to 20-year highs this year.
The new proposed rule would authorize asylum officers to decide whether or not to approve a claim for protection at the Mexico border, bypassing backlogged immigration courts where cases can often take years to be resolved by judges, according to a summary of the regulation and Reuters interviews with U.S. officials.
The Biden administration aims to hire an additional 1,000 asylum officers and another 1,000 support staff, said a senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official, who declined to be named ahead of an official announcement. The hiring spree would more than double the current crop of about 800 asylum officers and would be funded either by Congress or immigration application fee hikes.
"We hope that we will be able to assess claims within three months of arrival," the senior official said. "A lot of that will depend on the number of asylum officers that are hired."
The new process is the biggest proposed change to the asylum system since Biden took office in January, and a key part of a 21-point immigration plan https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/07/27/fact-sheet-the-biden-administration-blueprint-for-a-fair-orderly-and-humane-immigration-system unveiled in July.
The proposal for the reworked asylum process comes as arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border have risen to the highest monthly levels in two decades, giving opposition Republicans ammunition to hammer Biden, a Democrat, for rolling back many of former President Donald Trump's restrictive immigration policies.
"If we can determine who is a legitimate asylum seeker and who is not earlier in the process, I think that drives down some of the incentives for irregular migration," the official said.
Biden's asylum overhaul is overshadowed by his decision to keep in place a Trump-era border expulsion policy known as Title 42, which the administration says is needed to limit the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic.
Title 42, issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), blocks most migrants caught at the border from even being considered for asylum.
The proposal will go through a 60-day period of public comment, followed by a government review. The process to finalize it could stretch into early 2022, the DHS official said.
The regulation would apply to immigrants who are placed in fast-track deportation proceedings known as "expedited removal" on or after the rule's effect date.
The changes could enable more migrants in the expedited removal program to be released from custody, with the possibility of being enrolled in an alternative form of monitoring as their cases are processed.
Currently, expedited removal is typically only applied to immigrants in detention. That greatly limits its application, particularly for families, due to limited space for family detention, the official said.
The expedited removal provision could trigger backlash both among immigration hardliners and liberals, since it would allow immigrants to be released from custody while also expanding the use of the fast-track deportation process.