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Asylum restrictions are justified given "sheer number" of migrant arrivals, top U.S. official says

U.S. to admit nearly 40,000 migrants monthly
U.S. to admit nearly 40,000 migrants monthly via mobile app 06:11

Recently implemented restrictions on asylum that have been denounced by migrant advocates are justified given the "sheer number of people" who have journeyed to the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years, a top Biden administration official told CBS News on Thursday.

The Biden administration rule, enacted following the expiration of the Title 42 pandemic-era border restrictions on May 11, disqualifies migrants from asylum if they enter the U.S. without authorization after failing to seek humanitarian protection in a third country on their way to American soil. Those unable to prove they merit an exemption to the rule face being deported and banished from the U.S. for five years.

The regulation, which resembles a similar but more restrictive Trump administration rule, has been strongly criticized by progressive Democrats and advocates, who say the measure violates a law dating back to the 1980s that gave migrants the legal right to request asylum, regardless of how they entered the country.

Blas Nuñez-Neto, the Department of Homeland Security's assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, said the levels of unauthorized migration to the U.S. southern border were "dramatically different" when Congress enshrined the right to seek asylum decades ago.

"There's no doubt that our asylum system is antiquated and has not kept up with the changing demographics and countries that we are encountering at the border," Nuñez-Neto said in an interview, calling the current process "hopelessly broken."

The restriction on asylum eligibility, Nuñez-Neto argued, is an "effort to try to address some of the issues we see in the asylum system, especially in light of just the sheer number of people we are encountering right now."

Blas Nuñez-Neto testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on May 05, 2022.
Blas Nuñez-Neto testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on May 05, 2022. Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

Formally set up in 1980 to grant refuge to those fleeing persecution based on their race, religion, politics or other factors, the U.S. asylum program has come under severe strain over the past decade as unprecedented numbers of migrants seek protection along the southern border.

Fewer than 700 immigration judges are overseeing more than 2 million pending cases, many of them asylum requests, government data show. The massive and mounting backlog has created yearslong wait times for applicants to have their cases decided, a dynamic that government officials say harms legitimate asylum-seekers and encourages migrants searching for better economic opportunities to use the system to stay in the U.S. 

The Biden administration's broad asylum limits are part of a concerted effort to increase penalties for those entering the U.S. illegally. The U.S. has increased formal deportations, which, unlike the expulsions under the Title 42 public health order, impose lengthy bans on entering the country and the threat of criminal prosecution if deportees try to do so unlawfully.

Last week alone, the U.S. deported or returned roughly 12,500 migrants to their home countries or Mexico, Nuñez-Neto said, calling it a "substantial" increase from the number of formal deportations and returns carried out on a weekly basis before Title 42 expired.

Nuñez-Neto said the increase in formal deportations, and migrants' awareness of the stricter consequences for illegal entry, are partially responsible for the sharp drop in border crossings since the end of Title 42, which was expected to trigger a massive spike in migrants. "I think that message is resonating with migrants," he said.

Unlawful border crossings, Nuñez-Neto added, remain roughly 70% below the record 10,000 daily arrivals reported just prior to Title 42's termination. But he cautioned that the situation could still change.

"We know that there are tens of thousands migrants in Mexico and more between Mexico and the Darién," Nuñez-Neto said, referencing the notorious Panamanian jungle that tens of thousands of migrants have crossed on foot in the past year en route to the U.S.

Another component of the Biden administration's post-Title 42 border strategy relies on giving migrants more opportunities to come to the U.S. with legal permission.

A program is currently allowing up to 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the U.S. each month if Americans agree to financially sponsor them. In just a few months, the program received over 1.5 million applications, sparking internal concerns that the program's objective to discourage migrants from traveling to the U.S. border could be jeopardized unless the monthly cap was raised.

Nuñez-Neto did not say whether officials were planning to increase the 30,000 monthly cap, but he noted the administration was not "actively considering" expanding the program to include additional nationalities, such as migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Another effort to expand legal migration is a system powered by a government smartphone app that allows migrants in Mexico to secure an appointment to be processed at an official border crossing, so U.S. officials can determine whether they should be allowed inside the country to ask for asylum. Migrants who show up to a port of entry with an appointment are exempted from the asylum restriction.

The administration confirmed Wednesday that it is planning to process nearly 40,000 migrants with appointments each month, an increase from the 20,000 monthly average between January and April.

Republicans have sharply criticized the app, calling it a "concierge service for illegal immigrants." Advocates for migrants, meanwhile, have complained that the process is inaccessible to some of the most vulnerable asylum-seekers who lack smartphones or a strong internet connection.

Nuñez-Neto said the app was "working extremely well." He cited State Department efforts to fund efforts by groups in Mexico to offer Wi-Fi to migrants and internal findings that the "vast majority" of migrants processed by U.S. border officials have phones. Nuñez-Neto also noted that some migrants without an appointment could be processed at ports of entry if they have a compelling circumstance.

The Biden administration has also pledged to set up dozens of centers in Latin America to screen migrants for eligibility to be resettled in the hosting countries, Canada, Spain or the U.S. Nuñez-Neto noted that Guatemala agreed on Thursday to host these hubs, now called "secure mobility centers."

Nuñez-Neto conceded Thursday that the actions recently taken by the Biden administration, just like those taken by previous administrations, were still "inadequate" to address migration challenges in the long-term, citing lawsuits filed by Texas and migrant advocates that imperil those policies.

He said Democratic and Republican lawmakers need to find "ways to compromise" and update the U.S. immigration system, which has not been reformed in any significant way since the 1990s.

"I do hope that we will be able to start that conversation in Congress and I will be inviting Congress to help next week when I testify," Nuñez-Neto said.

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