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How the asylum system became the main avenue for mass migration to the US

A record of about 2.5 million migrants showed up at the US-Mexico border in 2023, and many of them are requesting asylum. The system is now overwhelmed, with a backlog of about 3 million asylum applications pending in courts. 

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In the US, companies across many industries, of all sizes, are struggling to find enough workers to fill open jobs.

Recent figures show that there are 9.5 million job openings nationwide, but only 6.5 million unemployed workers, according to the US Chamber of Commerce. 

“Keep in mind that a lot of these unfilled jobs are in hotels, restaurants, construction, assistance of people with health problems, and assistance of the elderly,” said Giovanni Peri, who studies migration economics at the University of California, Davis.

To address the labor-market shortage, the US needs more immigrants, he said. But the economic needs don’t mesh well with immigration policies. The reality is that there aren’t a lot of options for low-skilled workers, besides seasonal visas, to come to the US legally.

“Essentially, the US does not allow any immigrant who is not college-educated to come to the US to do a job unless you have a family person in the US,” Peri added. “So, it’s very restrictive.”

Because of this, asylum has become the de-facto alternative. Migrants are increasingly choosing to show up at the US-Mexico border, turn themselves into Border Patrol agents, and apply for asylum. Now, the asylum system is overwhelmed, with close to 3 million applications pending in courts

Asylum-seekers are waiting an average of 4 1/2 years for their cases to be resolved. 

“Many people have realized that if you actually make it to the US border, the chances of getting in, if you're applying for asylum, are very high, and that you won't get a hearing for years. And during that time, you can work legally,” said Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and director of Migration Policy Institute. 

He added that the asylum system has become the main channel for mass migration to the US, something it wasn’t originally designed to do.

The asylum system goes back to 1951, after World War II. The US, Canada and most countries in Europe signed the UN Refugee Convention, which was initially intended to protect people fleeing persecution in Europe.

“One of the key aspects of the Refugee Convention was that if somebody is on your soil and they say, ‘I fear for my life if you send me back to my country,’ [we’ll say,] “We're not going to send you back right away, we will at least give you a due process,”” said Adam Isacson, who works on border security at the Washington Office on Latin America.

The UN Refugee Convention also defined an eligibility criteria for asylum-seekers, which became standard.

Applicants have to prove that, more likely than not, if returned to their countries, they would be killed, imprisoned or tortured, because of race, religion, nationality, political belief, or membership in a particular social group.

Many migrants have a well-founded case based on that criteria. But others are fleeing general violence in their countries, climate change or economic hardship — claims that are not acceptable for gaining asylum.

Kathleen Busch-Joseph, the author of a recent study on US asylum, said the success of asylum cases depends largely on access to an immigration lawyer.

“Without legal representation, it's extremely difficult for people to be able to navigate the process. Legal service providers are completely overwhelmed right now,” she explained. 

She said to relieve the border crisis, it’s crucial to fix the asylum system, to hire more judges and speed up the process.

“People who need protection are not getting it in a timely manner. And people who are not eligible for protection are not being removed,” she added. 

But fixing the asylum system won’t solve the underlying problem at the border, according to Randall Hansen, who studies global migration at the University of Toronto.

“The bigger problem is passing legislation,” he said. “There is no way for migrant workers, whom America needs, to come to the United States legally. So, US policy is rendering them illegal. It is an internally self-generated crisis.”

Hansen added that the ultimate solution for the border crisis is in the hands of Congress. 

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