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Asylum seekers could be detained in Mexico for years under new immigration policy, DHS secretary says

One Democrat called the new policy a "gross violation of international law and of United States law."

by Emma Ockerman
Dec 20 2018, 5:36pm

Getting into the U.S. is about to become a lot harder for people fleeing persecution and violence.

In a dramatic change to U.S. immigration law, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday that asylum seekers will no longer be able to enter the U.S. and wait as their cases wind through the nation’s complex, bloated immigration court system. Under the new policy, they’ll instead be returned to Mexico after they’re processed by federal immigration officials.

Currently, immigrants seeking asylum protections can stay in the country as they await an immigration judge’s decision. Only one in 10 of those seeking asylum are ultimately granted protection, according to Nielsen.

Nielsen and Republicans on the committee repeatedly described the credible fear claim — in which asylum seekers say they’re afraid to return to their home country — as the “magic words” undocumented immigrants use to get into the country.

“The process takes many years; in the meantime the illegal alien is in the interior,” Nielsen said, adding that undocumented immigrants fail to show up for court cases that can occur long after they’ve entered the country.

Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, argued that people seeking asylum, whether legally or not, could wind up stuck in Mexico for years. For people with a legitimate asylum claim who would ultimately pass their asylum process, that could mean returning to violence or persecution.

“So what you’re really saying, are you not, is that anyone who applies, legitimately or otherwise, for political asylum should expect to be detained for years?” Nadler asked Nielsen.

“We do have a 700,000-to-800,000-person backlog in the —” Nielsen responded before Nadler cut her off.

“OK, please, I don’t have too much time. Correct, that’s what you’re saying?” Nadler pressed. “You’re saying they should expect to be detained for years?”

“Yes — not for years. Until their court is complete,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen argued the process takes so long now because of the volume of immigrants seeking asylum through the U.S. immigration system. She added that the Trump administration has requested more funds to hire more judges but couldn’t specify how much.

The burden of housing asylum seekers now falls on the Mexican government, although it’s unclear if they've signed on to the policy yet.

“I would simply say that a policy that deliberately says that anyone who legitimately deserves political asylum should spend years in detention seems to be in gross violation of international law and of United States law,” Nadler said.

Cover image: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen gathers her papers during a recess in her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)