More Illegal Immigrants Ask for Asylum

Joel Millman, Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2013

Floating across the Rio Grande on an inflatable raft, Francisco Antunez Gutierrez entered America illegally from Mexico in broad daylight this March. The U.S. Border Patrol spotted him a few minutes later, he says, and brought him here for detention.

But the U.S. hasn’t deported Mr. Antunez, because he played a card that illegal border crossers are using in record numbers: He asked for asylum.

The 21-year-old says going home to Honduras would be a mortal risk because he witnessed a double homicide and fears the killers will target him. That argument persuaded a federal asylum officer that Mr. Antunez had a “credible fear” case, which allowed him to stay for asylum proceedings that may take many more months.

Mr. Antunez was among 27,546 migrants who made credible-fear claims after entering the U.S. illegally in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, according to Department of Homeland Security data. That is up from 10,730 such cases in fiscal 2012 and 3,273 in 2008.

A few of these people entered from Canada or as stowaways. But the majority entered via Mexico—some from as far away as Africa or Asia—border officials say. Claiming they face harm if returned home, they are flooding immigration courts and detention facilities along America’s southern border, especially in South Texas.

Immigration judges eventually reject most of these asylum petitions. But some asylum seekers, who often go free on bail, use the lengthy process to disappear into America’s underground economy.

Illegal crossers like Mr. Antunez are a subset of asylum seekers. The U.S. received 83,400 asylum applications of all types in 2012, many from people living in America on valid visas or applying from overseas, Homeland Security data show. Asylum seekers are a minority of the hundreds of thousands of people whom the U.S. catches sneaking in each year.

But the sharp rise in people who declare they have a credible fear of harm back home suggests that illegal crossers have found the process to be an effective tactic to remain in America, now that stronger border policing has made it harder to melt in north of the border.

“It’s like the magic word,” says Jodi Goodwin, a longtime immigration lawyer in Harlingen. “Say it and the government has to give you a credible-fear hearing.”

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Mr. Antunez says that, when caught, he told Border Patrol officers that “I need asylum” and declined to sign a waiver for voluntary departure that officials generally hand illegal crossers.

Mr. Antunez learned to do this from Facebook. Before he left San Pedro Sula, Honduras, he says, he corresponded with others on the social-networking site, where Honduran asylum seekers offer advice. He also consulted the U.S. government’s immigration website.

The next step: an appearance before a federal asylum officer for a so-called Credible Fear Interview, in which the officer decides whether the case has merit.

An immigrant can seek asylum under five categories, based on fear of persecution over race, religion, nationality, political opinions or “membership in a particular social group.”

Mr. Antunez’s fear claim, like many from illegal crossers, fell loosely into the “social group” category. He says he told the officer he had seen a group of men shoot two drug dealers dead and that the gunmen later told him he was next if he didn’t leave Honduras.

The asylum officer granted Mr. Antunez a credible-fear-interview “pass.” In fiscal 2013, 85% of credible-fear claimants were granted a pass, Homeland Security data show.

That put him on track for an asylum hearing before an immigration judge. He was freed without bail on a conditional release to live with relatives in Texas, he says.

His next check-in with immigration officers is later this fall, he says, more than half a year after he was caught.

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The U.S. granted asylum to 23% of Guatemalans and 14% of El Salvadorans in the total pool of asylum seekers—including people here legally—from 2002 through 2011, according to federal data released to The Wall Street Journal under the Freedom of Information Act. There aren’t data on the success rates among illegal crossers alone, but immigration lawyers say rates are roughly the same for all categories.

For Hondurans, like Mr. Antunez, the rate was 10%. He says he will face those odds.

Others choose not to. After granting credible-fear passes, many courts release claimants on bail or on their own recognizance until the next hearing date—due in part to insufficient detention facilities, immigration officials say.

That is the last authorities see of some. There aren’t official data on how many asylum seekers go on the lam. In fiscal 2012, over 8,000 migrants that U.S. authorities detained and released failed to appear for their subsequent court dates, Justice Department data show; that likely includes many who were released from detention after expressing a credible fear of harm, immigration officials say.

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