Attorney General Jeff Sessions called on Congress on Thursday to tighten the rules for people seeking asylum through a system he said is filled with "rampant abuse and fraud."
In a speech at the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, Sessions said the nation's policies allow too many asylum seekers to exploit loopholes in a "broken" and extremely backlogged process.
"The system is being gamed," Sessions said. "Over the years, smart attorneys have exploited loopholes in the law, court rulings and lack of resources to substantially undermine the intent of Congress. . . . There is no cost or risk for those who make a baseless asylum claim."
Tightening standards in the U.S. asylum system was among immigration principles and policies the Trump administration recently said were needed to protect public safety and jobs for U.S.-born workers. The administration's list, sent to Congress, included funding a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, curbing federal grants to "sanctuary cities" and cracking down on the influx of Central American minors.
Civil liberties advocates said Sessions's comments were inaccurate and unfair to the thousands of people fleeing dangerous, life-threatening situations in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Venezuela.
"Attorney General [Sessions's] remarks today were a mere continuation of the administration's efforts to falsely paint asylum seekers and refugees as threats and frauds," said Eleanor Acer, the senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First. "These individuals are not criminals and frauds; they are mothers, teenagers, and children desperate to escape violence and persecution."
Asylum is given to a person on specific grounds because the person fears or has experienced persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. There are two ways to be granted asylum: One is "affirmative" asylum through the Department of Homeland Security. An applicant has to file a claim within a year of arriving in the United States.
The second is a "defensive" application for asylum because the person has filed late, was rejected by the DHS or was apprehended without proper legal documents. The defensive cases are handled by Justice Department immigration courts.
Sessions said that many of the asylum cases "lacked merit" and are "simply a ruse to enter the country illegally."
"As this system becomes overloaded with fake claims, it cannot deal effectively with just claims," Sessions said. "The surge in trials, hearings, appeals, bond proceedings has been overwhelming." He said that "credible-fear claims" at the border increased from about 3,000 cases in 2009 to more than 69,000 cases in 2016. The Justice Department's immigration review office has more than 600,000 cases pending, triple the number pending in 2009, according to the department.
"We also have dirty immigration lawyers who are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum, providing them with the magic words needed to trigger the credible-fear process," Sessions said.
Sessions's remarks are the latest in a string of anti-immigration stances he has taken since becoming attorney general. Sessions was the Trump administration official who announced Sept. 5 the end of the protection provided by the Obama administration for some 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children — they are often called "dreamers" — to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation.
Sessions has also threatened to withhold federal policing grants to "sanctuary cities" that do not cooperate with the federal government in detaining for deportation people who are in the country illegally. In speeches across the country, Sessions has blasted specific cities, such as Chicago, and tied their crime rates to their policies on undocumented immigrants.
Separately, the Justice Department on Thursday warned five jurisdictions considered to have "sanctuary" policies — Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and Cook County, Ill., whose county seat is Chicago — that officials had preliminarily found them to be in violation of a federal law governing communication with immigration authorities and that they could be at risk of losing grant funding. More than $8.3 million is at stake, a Justice Department spokesman said.
"Jurisdictions that adopt so-called 'sanctuary policies' also adopt the view that the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and of the rule of law," Sessions said in a statement.
Last month, the Trump administration arrested hundreds of undocumented immigrants in cities, including Washington, New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles, that are some of the harshest opponents of President Trump's immigration policies. Under Sessions, the Justice Department has defended various iterations of Trump's entry ban, which in its current version would suspend the issuance of visas to some citizens of eight, mostly majority-Muslim, countries.
In his speech Thursday, the attorney general, who left the U.S. Senate to lead the Justice Department, called on his former colleagues in Congress to revamp the asylum system by imposing penalties for fraudulent applications, increasing the use of expedited removals, raising the standard of proof in "credible fear" interviews and expanding the ability to send asylum seekers to safe third countries.
"What we cannot do — what we must not do — is continue to let our generosity be abused," Sessions said.
Maria Sacchetti and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.