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"Our nation's record of generosity and compassion to people in need of protection from war, anarchy, natural disaster and persecution is exemplary and easily the best in the world," Goodlatte began. "We grant asylum to tens of thousands of asylum seekers each year. We expect to continue this track record in protecting those who arrive here in order to escape persecution. Unfortunately, however, because of our well-justified reputation for compassion, many people are tempted to file fraudulent claims just so they can get a free pass into the United States."
Goodlatte claimed that 70 percent of asylum applications are fraudulent and stated that "the rule of law is being ignored and there is an endemic problem within the system that the [Obama] administration is ignoring."
The 70 percent statistic comes from a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office on benefit fraud. The authors analyzed 239 asylum cases and concluded that 29 of them — or 12 percent — were fraudulent. To reach the alarming 70 percent figure, Goodlatte included an additional 138 cases from the report that exhibited "possible indicators of fraud."
He also cited "a separate DHS report [that] shows that the Obama administration is abusing current law by not detaining certain individuals seeking asylum."
Upon request, Goodlatte's office provided a draft copy of a 2012 DHS report to Congress titled "Detained Asylum Seekers." According to the report, 68,795 people applied for asylum in 2012. Of those, 24,505 (roughly 36 percent) were detained, including 796 in New Jersey and 302 in New York. The average stay was about 79 days, but nearly 25 percent were held for 90 days or longer.
In point of fact, anyone who sets foot in this country and seeks asylum is detained, if only briefly. Those who meet the criteria to be considered an "affirmative" applicant — meaning they applied within a year of arriving, possess proper identification and followed regulations — are rarely detained for any length of time.
"In practice, only a very small number of affirmative asylum applicants are detained," the report states. "On the other hand, many defensive applicants...are detained for at least some portion of the processing of their immigration cases."
Those "defensive applicants" — people fighting deportation because they fear returning to their homeland, including those who passed a "credible fear" interview — accounted for more than 23,000 cases of detention in 2012. Defensive applicants include people who failed to apply for asylum within a year of arriving in the U.S. and individuals like Hussein Mohamed, the young Somali detained in New Jersey. His mistake was to walk across the border and immediately approach a Border Patrol agent to make his claim. By crossing on foot and essentially turning himself in, Mohamed became a member of a subset of asylum seekers subject to "expedited removal," a type of deportation proceeding with mandatory detention.
"In the perverse way the system works right now," LIRS attorney Megan Bremer explains, "if you come to the border and ask for asylum, you're considered a defensive asylum applicant. If you actually leave the airport — I don't know where you go — but the next day, you go to the immigration office and ask for asylum, then you're affirmative. It makes no sense."
Bremer says the results of the ongoing pilot project with ICE prove that asylum seekers should not be incarcerated. "The people that are being referred [by ICE officials], they represent no danger to our community," she insists. "They have credible claims. They would be released except for the lack of community ties."
It costs about $160 per day to keep each asylum seeker in immigration detention. It costs nothing to release them on parole to the nonprofit groups participating in the LIRS pilot program. Bremer says the fiscal considerations are helping "put feet to the fire" to prove to Congress that the program is safe and saving taxpayers money. The federal budget for immigration detention and deportation stands at $2.8 billion a year, with less than $100 million devoted to alternatives to detention, such as electronic ankle monitoring.
Bremer says the lack of federal funding for the pilot program "really limits the ability to deepen the capacity or scale up across geographic areas. It's not going to grow to meet the need without deeper pockets."
In order to secure additional funding after the pilot programs in New York, New Jersey and San Antonio, Texas, end in June, Bremer and other advocates must convince politicians like Goodlatte, ICE officials, and the general public that asylum seekers deserve compassion. Misconceptions about the asylum process and suspicions of fraud make matters difficult.
The uncomfortable truth is there is no surefire way to prevent fraud. The very nature of asylum requires officials to take people at their word to a certain extent. Documents and witness testimony are available in some instances, but short of personally traveling to conflict zones like Syria or lawless corners of Somalia and Pakistan, there is often no way for officials to independently verify the facts as asylum seekers tell them.
A 31-year-old Pakistani man named Khan, who is incarcerated at a New Jersey detention facility, says in an interview that he has spent the past seven months behind bars waiting for a decision on his asylum claim. He says he was forced to flee his home in Pakistan's tribal region after the Taliban executed his parents and threatened to kill him, his wife and their children. Khan explains that a judge had asked him for police reports of the killing and death certificates for his parents, but those records either didn't exist or were impossible for his friends and family in Pakistan to obtain. It's likely impossible to verify his story without visiting his village to investigate.