Asylum officers are part of the Asylum Division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the Department of Homeland Security. They already do what is known as the credible-fear screening of those making claims for protection at a U.S. border to determine whether the person has a “significant possibility” of establishing eligibility for asylum. Asylum seekers who pass are then permitted to enter the country to present their case for protection before an immigration judge as a defense against deportation. Immigration judges are housed in the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) in the Justice Department.
Instead of screened-in cases being referred to immigration judges, where the entire process must begin anew—often years later because of backlogs—the new rule would authorize asylum officers to maintain jurisdiction over these cases and subsequently complete what is known as the full merits adjudication at a USCIS asylum office near the destination of the asylum seeker. As with immigration courts, asylum offices are located throughout the country.
The core idea is based on research and recommendations the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) made in a 2018 report as a policy solution to make border case management more effective and timely. Under the new policy, asylum seekers found to merit protection will not be kept in limbo for years at a time while awaiting a final status determination. At the same time, those who may not have a strong asylum claim will have less incentive to apply for protection as a means of gaining U.S. entry, as often happens now, since the cases take so long to be decided. The recent increase in arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, which are the latest in a series of periodic spikes, make this change all the more compelling.