Many refugees and asylees have come to America and made important contributions. Americans justifiably are proud of our compassion to those fleeing persecution. But contrary to the claims of refugee advocates that only a “perception” of fraud exists, we indeed have a significant problem with fraud.
When asylum applications finally are adjudicated years later in our overwhelmed immigration courts and through United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, only about 25 percent to 35 percent eventually are deemed “bona fide” refugees. This data were compiled by the Congressional Research Service based on reports from the Executive Office for Immigration Review — our immigration courts — and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which adjudicate applications. For example, in 2013, approximately 80,000 asylum applications were submitted and, given two decades of past data, just 25,000 are likely to be deemed eligible for refugee status. In other words, the majority of asylum claims either are rejected or withdrawn. So the question for Mainers is, should we provide General Assistance to asylum seekers when a substantial majority will be inadmissible? Most other states are saying no.
Congress has tackled asylum fraud on multiple occasions. In 1993, the CBS show “60 Minutes” did a story on asylum fraud, describing asylum applicants flushing their travel documents down airplane toilets so they could make fraudulent claims at their port of entry, instantly obtaining legal documents, including work authorization, and then disappearing.
Americans learned that anyone in the world wanting to bypass our legal immigration system could enter this country with one magic sentence: “I’m running for my life.” No documentation was necessary. Any individual claiming persecution instantly could change their status from “illegal immigrant” to “asylum seeker.” The Clinton administration decided in 1995 to withhold job permits for 180 days to discourage frivolous asylum claims. In one year, asylum applications plunged 57 percent, which Doris Meissner, President Bill Clinton’s Immigration and Naturalization Service described as a “dramatic success.”
“For many years our nation’s asylum system was out of control and fraught with abuse,” Meissner told a news conference in 1996. “The INS has fixed a broken system through asylum reforms” by ending automatic work authorization, which had become a “magnet” for spurious applications.
But despite this reform, asylum fraud has continued to be a serious problem. In 2012, federal raids and indictments implicated 10 New York law firms and dozens of immigration lawyers, paralegals, and interpreters who helped asylum applicants fake their stories.
“Fraud in immigration asylees is a huge issue and a major problem,” Denise Slavin, vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told The New York Times in 2011. According to immigration lawyers interviewed by the Times, “the embellished stories go in and out of fashion along with the news of the day, reflecting turmoil in nations around the globe.”
Obviously, many of these stories are true. But many economic migrants are simply looking for a credible story to bypass immigration laws and obtain a better paid job. And deciphering the truth is not easy. For example, the parents of the Boston Marathon bombers came to America as refugees and then returned home a few years later, which doesn’t exactly fit “running for your life.” In 2013, ABC News reported FBI agents discovered that dozens of al-Qaida terrorists were allowed to settle in the U.S. as war refugees. More recently, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings: “ Asylum Fraud: Abusing America’s Compassion.”
Testifying before the committee, Louis Crocetti, former director of Fraud Detection and National Security at USCIS, with 35 years of experience, described a study of fraud in asylum applications, in which only 30 percent of applications were confirmed as fraud free.
Fraud in our asylum and refugee programs is costly, time consuming and undermines legitimate asylum claims.
U.S. Sen. Angus King, with the best of intentions, wanting to reduce General Assistance costs and get asylum applicants working sooner, has introduced legislation to speed up work authorization shortly after asylum applicants arrive, thereby undermining an important, proven Clinton-era reform for discouraging bogus claims. With so much fraud already in the system, King’s solution only encourages more people to game the system and head for Maine.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has a much better solution. She has introduced amendments to streamline the approval process and protect it from fraudulent claims, shortening the time people depend on General Assistance and quickening the process for bona fide refugees.
Jonette Christian of Holden is a member of Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.