ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
One big piece of the immigration system that President Biden's top advisers have promised to fix is how long it takes to resolve cases when people show up at the southern border to claim asylum. There are currently more than a million of these cases, with people waiting years for a resolution. NPR has learned exclusively about plans the Biden administration is now considering to deal with this, and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez joins us now with his reporting.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So what's the administration discussing?
ORDOÑEZ: So - well, you're right. There is a massive backlog of cases from the southern border that have really overloaded the immigration courts, which are run by the Department of Justice. And there are only actually about 530 judges handling those 1.2 million cases. And what the administration wants to do, according to the people I've spoken with, is take some of these asylum cases or parts of these cases off the hands of the immigration courts. Instead, the idea is to keep them in the asylum division, which is in the Department of Homeland Security, where asylum officers can work more quickly.
It's a plan based largely on one authored by Doris Meissner. She's a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and now she's with the Migration Policy Institute.
DORIS MEISSNER: Asylum officers do exactly this work for cases that arise in other parts of the country, except at the southern border because of this way that the statutes were written that didn't anticipate cases across the southern border.
ORDOÑEZ: And, you know, Ari, that's really key because they are already handling tens of thousands of cases like this a year for people who are not crossing the southern border. In 2019, actually, asylum officers granted asylum to nearly 30,000 applicants from places like Venezuela, China, Turkey and Russia.
SHAPIRO: So what would the impact be on people who are crossing at the southern border and who are stuck in this asylum backlog?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, it means that people with legitimate claims of asylum won't have to live in limbo for years, waiting for a decision. They'll be able to get on with their lives. And that goes for those who are denied asylum as well. They can move on.
Another aspect of this is, though, the plan could also discourage some unauthorized migration. And that's because the way it is now, those who are able to claim a reasonable fear of persecution can stay as their cases move slowly through the system. And often, they get work permits. And one source familiar with the discussions put it to me, it's very hard to explain to the rest of the country that it's not just an open door.
SHAPIRO: How are immigration advocates reacting to this?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, there is some concern. They welcome a more efficient system, but they worry that speeding it up too fast can make it unfair. Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First told me there are a lot of reasons to allow asylum officers to conduct these first set of interviews. But she says the appeals process in the courts must be protected.
ELEANOR ACER: Those massive backlogs have got to be dealt with, but the answer to that problem is not to deprive asylum seekers of due process and a fair hearing.
ORDOÑEZ: You know, that is just one piece of the criticism that was lodged against the Trump administration, which expanded some controversial programs that actually expedited removals.
SHAPIRO: And what's the Biden administration saying about this plan?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, they didn't speak to us specifically about these plans. They told me they have nothing to preview. But Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas kind of teased the plan a few weeks ago, promising a new regulation to, quote, "shorten from years to months," the time it takes to complete these cases. And he also said they will protect procedural safeguards and enhance access to lawyers. And the administration has told us reporters that they are working on a number of policies and regulations to create a, quote, "better functioning asylum system." And that includes establishing a refugee processing center in the region so that people can apply for relief closer to home.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thank you.
ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Ari.
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