Apr 14, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Border Democrats seek asylum revamp, more help from feds

Rep. Veronica Escobar is seen speaking in front of the U.S. Capitol.

Rep. Veronica Escobar. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

Two border-district Democrats in Congress are pressing the Biden administration to revamp the asylum process, saying the current migrant surge is highlighting significant flaws in the system.

Why it matters: These lawmakers say the administration needs to start making concrete changes by summer. "If it's this bad in 90 days, it's hard to have excuses," Rep. Vicente Gonzalez told Axios.

Driving the news: Axios met with Gonzalez and Rep. Veronica Escobar last week in their Texas districts, which include the border cities of McAllen and El Paso.

  • Both said better asylum systems and new pathways for Central American migrants can reduce future surges while ensuring humanitarian protections.
  • Migrants must reach the U.S. to claim asylum. They must then prove they have faced — or have "a well-founded fear" — of persecution back home.
  • The claims typically are heard by immigration judges, but the Trump administration made it more difficult to seek asylum in the U.S.

Details: Escobar supports a plan — originally floated by the Migration Policy Institute's Doris Meissner — for immigration officers to adjudicate asylum claims at the border, rather than through backlogged immigration courts.

  • The result would be faster asylum grants.
  • The Biden administration is considering such a plan, a person familiar with a draft plan for regulations told Axios, and NPR also has reported.
  • Escobar said asylum seekers still would need to be able to appeal negative decisions to the immigration courts — and that she'll push for better access to legal counsel for them.

Gonzalez is promoting setting up "safe zones" in southern Mexico or Guatemala.

  • They would be guarded centers where people could stay safely while their claims are processed by U.S. officials.

The big picture: Both lawmakers say their constituents play unique roles in shaping the immigration debate because of how it impacts their everyday lives at the border.

  • Escobar said she's asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for more resources — including more COVID-19 vaccine doses for her district, given El Paso's exposure at the border.
  • It's a "predominantly economically disadvantaged community that needs every resource it can have," she said.
  • Gonzalez said McAllen is still awaiting federal government immigration-related financial reimbursements from 2019.

The bottom line: "Our cities, our municipalities are spread thin," he said.

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