Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security committee, speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill on April 9. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

A Senate GOP chairman is preparing legislation to tighten asylum standards as the Trump administration greenlights longer detention for migrants and Congress scrambles for a legislative response to the swelling number of people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in an interview Wednesday that the focus of his bill would be to more swiftly and rigorously assess the claims of asylum seekers while keeping them detained longer so the government could more easily deport them if their asylum claims are denied. 

“You have to have the resources to make the determination quickly, but fairly, while people are in detention,” said Johnson, who just finished a two-day trip to the southern border. “I sure don’t want indefinite detention . . . but we need to be able to hold people long enough” to process claims.

Johnson’s legislative effort comes as President Trump has publicly weighed a series of controversial ideas to stem the recent surge of migration at the border. The figure has swelled dramatically, to more than 100,000 people apprehended at the border last month. 

On Tuesday, Attorney General William P. Barr moved to make it easier for the government to detain asylum seekers by ordering immigration judges to stop allowing some of the migrants to post bail as they wait for their cases to be heard. The decision applies to those who have already established the so-called “credible fear” standard, which refers to a test that asylum seekers undergo as the first step in seeking permanent refuge in the United States. The move was denounced by immigrant-rights groups who have threatened legal action to challenge Barr’s decision. 

The proposed legislation from Johnson, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, shares a similar goal in seeking to keep more asylum seekers detained as cases are processed.

Johnson also wants to make the credible fear standard more stringent. Nearly 90 percent of asylum seekers meet that initial standard, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which allows them to continue their application process. But Johnson said the test should be altered so the figure is somewhere around 50 percent. 

“I think you have to raise the standards to more probable than not … that you have a valid asylum claim,” he said. 

As part of his bill, tentatively named the “Families Act,” Johnson said he also wants to ensure migrants can be detained longer so that if their asylum claims were rejected, they could be deported more quickly as a way to discourage more illegal migration. 

Under a 1997 federal settlement, migrant children cannot be detained for longer than 20 days, so minors and their parents are generally released together after that time period so they are not separated. 

But Johnson raised concerns that federal immigration officials were struggling to keep track of where the asylum applicants went once they were left immigration custody. He is considering a maximum detention time of 90 days, although “I’m happy to compromise at 60.” 


Central American asylum seekers exit the El Chaparral border crossing gate after being sent back to Mexico by the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 30, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Meanwhile, Trump has floated ideas such as shutting down the entire U.S.-Mexico border or sending asylum seekers to so-called “sanctuary cities,” where local officials limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The latter idea has drawn concern from immigration officials who have raised budgetary and liability concerns. 

Even though Johnson said the move could put political pressure on Democrats for a legislative fix, he also raised the long-term implications of moving migrants to primarily Democratic districts, such as the counting of people for the U.S. Census. 

“I’m not sure, politically, whether that’s the smartest thing to do,” Johnson said. “I’m far more interested in, let’s fix the problem so we don’t have to worry about where all these people are being dispersed to, in America.” 

Johnson just completed a two-day visit to the El Paso sector of the southern border, where he said he spoke with immigration officials and observed the treatment of migrants who were arriving daily by the hundreds to be admitted into the United States. 

“I think it’s important for people to understand what a highly organized and highly profitable business this is for the drug cartels, transnational criminal organizations,” Johnson said. The groups have “obviously moved into human trafficking which they found to be easier, less risky and more profitable.” 

The migrants were turning themselves in at the Border Patrol station in El Paso, and Johnson said there seemed to be “no fear in anybody” and that the migration appeared “highly organized.” He also said border officials were responsive to the migrants’ needs, particularly if they sought medical attention. 

“It doesn’t look that these people have been abused, or spent three nights in a tractor-trailer,” Johnson said.