The number of people seeking asylum at the Southwest border has doubled since 2011, according to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
There have been 14,610 asylum claims along the border with Mexico during the first three-quarters of the 2013 fiscal year. In 2011, there were 6,824.
These numbers represent only “defensive” asylum claims -- those that are made at the ports of entry into the U.S. They don’t include asylum claims made by people who are already living in the country without authorization.
While asylum requests have certainly increased, it’s important to keep these figures in perspective.
A Fox news station reported just over a week ago that hundreds of migrants were using asylum claims as a “loophole” to cross the U.S. border and remain in the country.
In the report, an anonymous source said that a border crossing near San Diego was being “overwhelmed” by asylum seekers, and that nearly 200 people entered asylum claims on a single day several weeks ago.
Part of the reason DHS released the data on border asylum requests was to counter the Fox report, according to the AP.
First of all, few people are granted asylum, as we wrote last week. Asylees made up just five percent of the total number of people receiving green cards in 2011.
Mexicans in particular are rarely granted asylum.
The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has broken out some telling stats:
“From 2002 through 2011, Mexican nationals accounted for 1 percent (1,685) of the 260,951 individuals granted asylum,” according to MPI. “No Mexican nationals were reported as refugee arrivals in 2011 data.”
Federal officials told the AP that there has been an increase in asylum requests, but that it’s been “modest.”
The AP reports:
“Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 15, the agency said, an average of 30 people per day have arrived at San Diego ports asking for asylum, compared with roughly 170,000 travelers who cross the border there legally each day.”
There’s a trend worth noting here, though.
Even if the numbers are small relative to the larger immigration system, there appear to be more Mexicans and Central Americans hoping to get legal status in the U.S. based on the threat of cartel-induced violence in their hometowns.
If the numbers keep increasing, there could be more pressure on federal immigration officials to grant asylum to those migrants. Right now, about half of all asylum approvals go to people from China, Egypt, Ethiopia and Venezuela.
The drug war in Mexico is a legitimate threat, with an estimated 60,000 people killed in related violence from 2006 to 2012.
And the U.S. has a role in the violence as a drug consumer and as a weapons supplier. A federal report estimated that American spending on illegal drugs resulted in between $19 and $29 billion going to Mexican drug traffickers each year.
We’ve been faced with this sort of immigration dilemma in the past. Just look at El Salvador in the 1980s.
Hundreds of thousands of people were trying to leave that country in the wake of a violent civil war. But few people were being accepted for asylum or refugee status in the U.S., despite America’s role in the Salvadoran conflict.
That led Congress to create something called Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which allows the federal government to offer special temporary visas to people who are fleeing imminent dangers in their home countries, like internecine warfare or natural disasters.
TPS became a way to give Salvadorans (and immigrants from a handful of other nations) a legal route to the U.S. when faced with an asylum system that would turn them away.
The program hasn’t been perfect. Roughly 208,000 Salvadorans are living in the U.S. under this status, with no clear path to permanent legal status. Many of them have been here for decades, living, working and paying taxes.
It’s hard to imagine Congress extending a program like this to Mexicans. Because the country is so much larger, and closer to the U.S., the number of applicants would likely be much higher.
But if drug-war violence continues and asylum applications keep rising, more people will be clamoring for a response from Washington.