Posted on April 11, 2024

The Explosion of Asylum Claims Driving the Global Migrant Crisis

David Luhnow et al., Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2024

About a mile north of the U.S.-Mexico border, a makeshift collection of multicolored blankets and tarps blooms in the desert. The people waiting there are migrants from around the world, most of whom snuck through a gap where an 18-foot steel wall meets a rocky hill outside this desert town about an hour east of San Diego.

The camp has a name, hand-painted on a plywood sign and lit with a solar-powered light for people arriving at night: Campo de Asilo, or Asylum Camp. Run by an aid group, it’s a destination for migrants planning to turn themselves in to U.S. border agents and request asylum.

That simple request is the main driver of record illegal immigration in much of the Western world. People travel thousands of miles, on foot and across seas, to turn up at the land borders of rich countries to ask for asylum, a form of legal protection for people who face persecution in their home country.

It’s also become a key loophole for economic migrants, who aren’t under threat but want better working opportunities. Quirks in the law and an overwhelmed processing system nearly guarantee entry, at least for a time.

The U.S. received more than 920,000 applications for asylum during its 2023 fiscal year, compared with just 76,000 in 2013. Since a single application can cover multiple members of a family, the figures underestimate the actual numbers of people seeking asylum.

Family groups, who now almost always ask for asylum, make up about half the roughly two million people encountered by authorities who illegally crossed the U.S. frontier with Mexico last year. Another half million came through legal ports of entry, many using a Border Patrol smartphone app that launched in January 2023 to make an appointment to cross and ask for asylum.


The law in the U.S. typically gives migrants who have a reasonable claim of persecution the right to live and work in the country while their cases progress through the courts. So many are now coming that the U.S. lacks the capacity to quickly screen their cases, either at the border or in courts, where a typical asylum case now takes four years.

Even if an application is ultimately rejected, migrants by then have put down roots, often had American children and are rarely deported because of the costs and logistical challenges. They are left in limbo—they lose the right to work legally but aren’t kicked out.

Yet with the road to legal migration increasingly difficult even for migrants with high-tech skills, asylum is for many seen as the most viable way into the U.S. “If it’s not asylum, there are very, very few options,” said Rebecca Press, an immigration lawyer in New York who frequently handles asylum cases.


The numbers have overwhelmed the courts, Customs and Border Protection and the budgets of cities offering shelter to migrants, putting the issue of immigration at the top of political debates and the coming presidential election.

A Wall Street Journal national poll conducted in late February found that 20% of voters now rank immigration as their top issue, ahead of the economy, which had taken the top spot in December.

Texas has fought to take more control of immigration across its borders. Its aim to arrest and deport immigrants, being contested in federal court, has added even more disarray to U.S. immigration policy.

It’s a global issue. Europe, which has even greater protections for would-be asylees than the U.S., received 1.14 million asylum seekers last year, the highest since 2016, when a wave of migrants sparked by Syria’s civil war overwhelmed European borders. The issue has fed the rise of the far-right in countries across the continent. The U.K. spends the equivalent of $3.9 billion a year putting up asylum seekers in hotels while they wait for their cases to journey through overcrowded courts.

Germany received more than 330,000 asylum applications from people who turned up at its border last year—not including those from Ukraine—a more than 70% rise from 2022. Canada’s asylum applications more than doubled last year to nearly 138,000. Globally, the U.N. registered a record 2.6 million asylum applications in 2022, the latest year of available data and a 30% rise compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Countries are grasping for solutions. Italy recently struck a deal to make asylum seekers wait for their decisions in Albania. The U.K., Denmark, and Germany are all exploring ways to send asylum seekers permanently to third countries, including in Africa.

“The original idea was to provide protection for people who needed it, but what it’s become is a pathway to immigration,” said Alexander Downer, the former foreign minister of Australia, which has taken the hardest line against asylum seekers of any country in the West.

In 2013, when more than 20,000 people in small boats turned up in Australia—with scores more dying at sea—the country essentially suspended territorial asylum. Australia still accepts refugees, but only those who process their claims abroad and fly in. Small boats now get intercepted at sea, and people seeking asylum are sent to another country paid to house them. Even if they win their case, they are usually not resettled in Australia. Within two years of the policy, boat arrivals dropped to zero.

In the U.S., so many people illegally entering now request asylum that the Border Patrol rarely bothers asking migrants if that’s why they have arrived. They simply direct them to wait in places set up by migrant aid groups, such as Campo de Asilo, until they can be driven to Border Patrol stations to be fingerprinted, given information for their first court appearance and returned to aid groups or dropped off at bus stops.


Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree the asylum system needs overhauling, but have long been unable to pass an immigration reform package. The most recent proposal, which failed in a Senate vote, would have created a rapid asylum decision process and a toughened initial screening.

International law began compelling governments to grant asylum to immigrants who suffered or had a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country in the late 1940s, after many nations had earlier refused to give shelter to Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

In the following decades, the U.S. took in refugees through a series of policies that often targeted a single area, including some 200,000 fleeing Communist countries in the 1950s.

In 1980, the U.S. adopted the Refugee Act, which allowed entry of up to 50,000 refugees a year from all over the world. A refugee is typically someone who has been determined by a court or an expert to qualify for asylum.

Cases were usually processed while people were still overseas. Defectors and dissidents or refugees from places such as Vietnam or Cambodia who had been pre-vetted and granted visas made up the bulk of the numbers.

In an age before mass transit and instant communications, few people pictured masses of asylum seekers turning up at land borders unannounced. Despite its cap on refugee entries, the U.S. still doesn’t regulate the number of people physically crossing the border and asking for asylum—if a person arrives, the law requires that the case be heard.


Things began to change around 2014. The Border Patrol, accustomed to chasing down single Mexican men who snuck across the border looking for work, suddenly began encountering families from Central America turning themselves in and asking for asylum.

The new wave of asylum seekers slowly caught on, fueled by migrant families telling others back home that they had successfully made it into the U.S. The rise of smartphones made it easier for migrants to spread the word.

Popular social-media accounts in the U.S. and Latin America tout asylum as a simple way to enter the U.S. and offer practical tips. “You have to have a script,” one video says. “You have to tell your story in a chronological order, with dates, with times and with a sequence of how the events that affected you happened. Many people do not prepare and their memory betrays them.”

The growing use of asylum claims overwhelmed the system and made it nearly impossible to address cases on the spot—immigration officials at the border can screen entrants and determine whether they have a “credible fear” of being returned to their own country, rejecting those outright who don’t meet that requirement. Only a few hundred screenings a day out of several thousands of border encounters now take place.

In fiscal 2013, just over 80% of all border encounters ended in repatriation. But as asylum claims grew, that number fell to about 30% in 2019, the most recent year of data available, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The percentage of families repatriated within three years of their initial arrival at the border fell from 44% in 2013 to 6.2% in 2018, the latest year with available data. It is now likely even lower, immigration experts said.