April 9, 2013— -- From a humanitarian standpoint, much of the attention around an immigration reform bill being drafted in the Senate has focused on what will happen to the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
But for some religious groups and human-rights activists, there's another cause that shouldn't be forgotten: those persecuted in other countries.
Refugees and asylees made up 13 percent of all immigrants who obtained legal permanent status in 2012. Whether a person is considered a refugee or an asylee depends on where the person seeking protection was living at the time of the application. Refugees are people who apply from outside the U.S.; asylees are those who are already living here when they apply.
The number of people granted asylum in particular is much smaller, representing 4 percent of incoming legal permanent residents in 2012. But it's still a big deal for people around the globe seeking refuge from persecution.
The U.S. received the most asylum claims of any nation in 2013, and has been the most generous in granting such applications over the past 70 years.
Fraud concerns within the system are legitimate, and law enforcement officials have said that asylum schemes are the hardest immigration fraud cases to uncover.
In a case that's indicative of the worries about the program, six lawyers and two dozen immigrants were arrested in an asylum-seeking scheme in New York City this December.
So why hasn't the immigration debate dug into asylum policy this time around? For one, the system is working pretty well now, according to Melanie Nezer, senior director for U.S. policy and advocacy at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a leading voice backing the rights of asylum seekers.
"In the '90s, when there was a sense that the asylum system was out of control, there was a lot of political attention to it," she said. But reforms to the system in 1990 and 1996 quelled worries about fraud, "so there's less of a political concern," Nezer said.
And so far, anti-immigration groups have played a less influential role in the immigration reform debate, even among conservatives. That means a better chance that the asylum system could change in favor of people seeking protection in the U.S., Nezer said.
"It's nice that we're in a position where we're talking about the possibility of positive change," Nezer said, adding that she wasn't yet certain what an immigration bill might yield.
What changes are advocates seeking?
The biggest one would be lifting a regulation that restricts asylum applications to a one-year period after arriving in the U.S., with limited exceptions.
The one-year deadline was put into place as part of a broad, enforcement-centered immigration law passed in 1996, but should be rolled back now, according to Mary Giovagnoli, the director of the American Immigration Council's Immigration Policy Center.
"The idea was that it would be a deterrent to people who really didn't have asylum claims, because if you didn't apply within the first year of coming to the United States, the presumption was you didn't really have a fear of returning to your country," Giovagnoli said. "Although there were some exceptions built into that law, the exceptions were not very generous."
A 2010 study by law professors from Georgetown and Temple universities found that since the one-year deadline went into effect in 1998, roughly 21,000 cases likely to meet asylum criteria were rejected because of the time limit.
According to one of the authors of the study, Andrew Schoenholtz, a visiting professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center, the one-year deadline doesn't prevent fraud, either. He spoke along with Giovagnoli and Nezer at an event on Tuesday morning hosted by the American Immigration Council.
"It requires the Department of Homeland Security to reject otherwise meretricious asylum applicants who filed later, but it poses no bars on fraudulent applicants who filed within a year," he said. "And you can be sure that people who are smuggled into the country are told when to file."