Requests for asylum in the United States along the Southwest border with Mexico have more than doubled in recent years as immigrants seek legal entry into the country by claiming fear of persecution back home, according to figures the federal government released Friday.

The “credible fear” claims at the border reached 14,610 by the end of June, with three months left in the fiscal year, the Department of Homeland Security reported. That’s compared with 6,824 such claims for the entire 2011 fiscal year. DHS noted, however, that those numbers are a tiny portion of the millions of travelers who legally cross the border each year.

The numbers represent what’s known as “defensive” applications, where foreigners who are outside the United States arrive at ports of entry seeking asylum. They do not include numbers of additional “affirmative” asylum requests filed during the same time period by immigrants who are already in the United States without permanent legal status. The department said that those figures were not available.

The figures were released Friday, in part to dispute information, first reported by Fox News, that large numbers of Mexican citizens have been showing up at San Diego ports of entry recently to seek asylum. DHS officials said that the reports have been overstated, calling the increase in asylum requests at those ports “modest.”

Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 15, the agency said, an average of 30 people per day have arrived at San Diego ports asking for asylum, compared with roughly 170,000 travelers who cross the border there legally each day.

Critics of current immigration overhaul efforts in Washington have claimed that immigrants are using the credible fear claim as a loophole to gain legal entry into the United States, citing fear of drug cartel violence in Mexico. Immigration experts say the concerns are overstated.

The issue gained new attention recently after nine immigration rights activists presented themselves at the border of Arizona in Mexico seeking asylum. After spending several weeks in detention, they have since been released into the United States pending hearings before an immigration judge who will make a final decision on whether to grant their requests.

DHS is quick to point out that such requests from Mexican citizens are rarely granted, noting that, on average, 91 percent are denied.

While it’s unclear what will happen with the nine activists, some say their release into the United States, even if only temporarily, sets a dangerous precedent and could overwhelm ports of entry across the border. All of this is occurring while the White House is pressuring a reluctant Republican-led House to pass a major immigration overhaul bill.

“Frankly, I don’t think the House should pass any bill until the administration shows its willingness to confront and fix this problem,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a vocal opponent of the legislation.

“This is a direct threat to the orderly administration of our immigration law,” Sessions added, predicting that even the perception of easy entry into the United States by claiming asylum could create havoc on the border as thousands more try the same tactic.

DHS officials said that the numbers aren’t showing a marked increase in such asylum requests from Mexican citizens, as critics fear, but the agency couldn’t provide more detailed figures.

“Border activity levels are cyclical in nature. Claims of credible fear along the Southwest border vary month to month and year to year,” DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard said. “Credible fear determinations are dictated by long-standing statute, not an issuance of discretion.”

In order to win asylum in the United States, an immigrant must prove he or she is being persecuted because of race, religion, political views, nationality or membership in a particular social group. They also must prove that their government is either part of the persecution or unable or unwilling to protect them.

Immigration lawyers also point out that the bar is extremely high for being granted asylum in the United States.

“Most people who get these credible fear interviews, even if they pass, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be released,” said David Leopold, an Ohio immigration lawyer and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “You could be sitting in detention for months and months until you get your asylum hearing, and then you’re denied and sent back.”

Kathleen Campbell Walker, an El Paso, Tex.-based immigration lawyer and a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, calls the claims of a deluge of Mexican citizens rushing the border “alarmist.”

However, she added, America is a nation of immigrants and shouldn’t change its policy of allowing legitimate asylum seekers refuge in the country.

“We care. We’re a humanitarian nation,” Walker said. “That’s just who we are.”

Traditionally, Mexican citizens make up a small percentage of foreigners seeking asylum in the United States based on credible fear. Chinese citizens have regularly filed the most requests, dating back to at least 2008.

Asylum requests from Central Americans also have spiked in recent years, a move government officials attribute to reports of increased drug trafficking, violence and overall rising crime in the region.

— Associated Press