How The U.S. Asylum System Works09:43
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President Trump's zero-tolerance policy has put a spotlight on the U.S. asylum process. In this April 26, 2018 file photo, migrants in a caravan of Central American asylum-seekers board a bus in Mexicali, Mexico, for a two-hour drive to Tijuana to join up with about 175 others who already arrived. (Hans-Maximo Musielik/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
President Trump's zero-tolerance policy has put a spotlight on the U.S. asylum process. In this April 26, 2018 file photo, migrants in a caravan of Central American asylum-seekers board a bus in Mexicali, Mexico, for a two-hour drive to Tijuana to join up with about 175 others who already arrived. (Hans-Maximo Musielik/AP)

President Trump's zero-tolerance immigration policy has put a spotlight on the U.S. asylum process. According to an analysis of government statistics by the American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy group, around 20,000 people were granted asylum in 2016, the latest data available. That's down from nearly double that in the early 2000s, but up significantly from the '90s.

So what causes those changes, and how does the asylum process work?

Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Houston Law Center, who has also represented asylum seekers in the U.S.

"The grant rate has been declining for several years. And if you look at the grant rates — especially with respect to immigration court proceedings — they've been declining, and the rate of people who have been denied asylum is actually going up," Hoffman says. "Right now, it's between about 60 to 70 percent are getting denied, and that rate is increasing. So it's very troubling. Some judges are even above 90 percent denial rate."

Interview Highlights

On whether a person has to be on U.S. soil to first make an asylum claim

"Yes, you have to be at the border, or you have to be in the interior of the United States. You have to meet the definition of 'refugee.' So that's where the confusion comes about in the public consciousness. There is a definition of refugee in the [Immigration and Nationality Act], and so if you're seeking refugee status, then you're outside the United States. If you're at the border or in the United States and proving that you're a refugee, then that's called seeking asylum status."

"We don't want asylum seekers to be detained, because if they're detained, they have a lot of impediments to seeking asylum."

Geoffrey Hoffman

On whether it's historically been the case for people to be detained while seeking asylum

"Historically, people have been detained for a short period of time, and then when they pass their credible fear interviews, they're supposed to be released. Unfortunately right now, we're looking at — as we saw with the family separations and now the family detentions — that there's the possibility of people being detained, or even families being detained, for an indefinite period of time. So that's definitely something that the United Nations and other groups have criticized. We don't want asylum seekers to be detained, because if they're detained, they have a lot of impediments to seeking asylum. For example, difficulties in access to counsel and difficulties in access to making their case for asylum."

On what asylum seekers are asked during a credible fear interview

"The credible fear interview process is a process where individuals, officials from the asylum unit part of USCIS, which is Citizenship and Immigration Services, they are specially trained, they are going to go into detail and ask many, many questions about the underlying basis for the persecution claim. I think the real issue here is the asylum seeker has to show a significant possibility — that's the standard — a significant possibility that they will prevail in the future in seeking asylum. So they don't have to necessarily have any corroborative evidence at this point, but they need to be able to create a narrative that is true that will satisfy the adjudicator that they have a significant possibility of asylum."

On President Trump's claims that smugglers and human traffickers game the asylum system

"That's always the fear, that's the fearmongering that's part of the current administration. They're going to point to the very, very, very few — and in my experience, and I've been an attorney for many years, yes, there may be some bad apples. But you can't throw out the baby with the bathwater, and paint with such a broad brush that everyone should be denied asylum."

On reaction to previous immigration waves in American history

" ... Others recently have written very eloquently about the fact that this country has seen waves and waves of refugees. We saw refugees obviously right before World War II, and we as a country took in many refugees at that point. And we have to adhere to our values as a country, and we can't turn away these people and we shouldn't be in the situation where we're thinking of these people as an infestation or invaders, or some of this negative rhetoric that we're hearing, because what it is is it's dehumanizing. It's beneath us as a country, and it's quite frankly embarrassing."

This segment aired on June 22, 2018.

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