‘Credible Fear’ Findings Plummet As Tougher Asylum Standards Take Effect

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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  • Pass rates in credible fear reviews — the first step in the asylum process — have fallen dramatically in 2018
  • The decline comes amid efforts by the Trump administration to crack down on fraudulent or frivolous asylum claims
  • The pass rate for credible fear reviews across the immigration court system is now less than half what it was in 2017

Findings of credible fear have fallen dramatically in the first six months of 2018 as the Trump administration has moved to narrow the guidelines that determine who is eligible for asylum, according to a report released Monday by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

A credible fear determination is the first step in the asylum process, in which an asylum officer interviews a petitioner to determine if he has a legitimate fear of persecution in his home country. If the officer rejects the claim, the asylum seeker can ask an immigration judge to re-evaluate the decision in what’s known as a credible fear review (CFR).

Government data analyzed by TRAC show that, starting in January, the rate of positive findings in CFRs began to fall sharply. Just 15 percent of CFRs across the immigration court system resulted in a favorable determination by June, compared to an average of about 32 percent in the last six months of 2017.

The pass rate varied enormously depending on the location of the immigration court and the judge overseeing the hearing, according to TRAC’s report. In Chicago, for example, the average pass rate in the first nine months of fiscal year 2018 was about 52 percent. The favorable outcome rate over the same period was 40 percent in San Antonio and 20 percent in Los Angeles.

Declining CFR pass rates have paralleled the Trump administration’s effort to crack down on fraudulent or frivolous asylum claims by raising the credible fear standard used by immigration judges and asylum officers. Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticized the asylum system and called for “elevating the threshold standard of proof in credible fear interviews,” in an October 2017 speech to immigration judges.

Sessions followed up in March by announcing that he would review certain decisions by the Board of Immigration Appeals with an eye toward tightening credible fear standards. That review led to a June ruling in which Sessions found that gang and domestic violence alone could not serve as a basis for a valid asylum claim, a decision that could potentially foreclose asylum petitions by tens of thousands of migrants from Mexico and Central America. (RELATED: Sessions Tightens Asylum Standards)

Critics of Sessions’ ruling say it will harm vulnerable populations of women and children migrants who have a right to apply for asylum under U.S. and international law. But the Trump administration says tougher standards are needed, citing the wide gap between the rate of positive credible fear determinations by asylum officers — about 80 percent — and the rate of ultimately successful asylum petitions — about 20 percent for asylum seekers from Central America — as evidence that the system is gummed up with frivolous claims.

The number of annual asylum claims exploded by 1,700 percent between 2008 and 2016, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The surge has been driven by a wave of migrants from Central America, mostly families and unaccompanied minors, who say they are fleeing intractable violence and poverty.

Roughly one out of 100 arriving aliens claimed credible fear until 2013, according to DHS figures released in April. That ratio had risen to roughly one out of 10 by 2017 — meaning an unauthorized alien who arrived that year was 10 times as likely to claim credible fear as one who arrived four years prior.

The backlog of affirmative asylum cases now stands at about 300,000.

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