The Biden administration is gradually moving forward with new changes that would increase the speed at which the U.S. government evaluates requests for asylum – a frequent plea from migrants at the border – according to two government officials.
The new rule would allow asylum officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to fully adjudicate the merits of an asylum case after the agency screens the applicant for potentially having well-founded fear of persecution or specific harm if removed to their home country.
"The current system for handling asylum claims at our borders has long needed repair," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement Thursday. "Through this rule, we are building a more functional and sensible asylum system to ensure that individuals who are eligible will receive protection more swiftly, while those who are not eligible will be rapidly removed. We will process claims for asylum or other humanitarian protection in a timely and efficient manner while ensuring due process."
Currently, asylum cases for those in expedited removal proceedings are handled by immigration judges under the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review. For cases that are still heard by a judge, USCIS will deliver the defendant's filed record at the beginning of the case including, interview transcripts with screeners and the prior USCIS decision.
Cases are expected to be completed within 90 days, barring potential extension requests. Today, asylum cases can take months or often years to complete. The result leaves U.S. federal immigration court with a total case backlog in excess of 1 million, according to researchers at Syracuse University.
News of the policy shift was met with mixed reviews from immigrant advocacy organizations as concerns remain over access to legal counsel under the new expedited time frame.
"While we appreciate that the Biden administration made a number of positive changes to the regulation in response to the comments, we are gravely concerned about the timeframes proposed in the regulation," attorney and American Immigration Counsel policy analyst Aaron Reichlin-Melnick said Thursday. "Studies have consistently showed that one of the most important factors in determining whether a person can win asylum is whether they are able to obtain a lawyer. Because these timelines will make it more difficult to obtain an attorney, the rule as written would gravely increase the risk of an unjust denial of asylum."
Other groups have praised the move as a positive step toward administrative immigration reform since it was first announced last year.
"As it moves to make much-needed changes to the asylum process, the administration should continue working with advocates and other stakeholders to ensure a fully functional, fair, and secure asylum system for all those seeking protection," head of the National Immigration Forum Ali Noorani said in August.
Melanie Nezer, a spokesperson for the refugee aid organization HIAS, said the announcement "is a major change and very welcome news, although we remain concerned about the longstanding use of expedited removal."
Under the new process, if an asylum officer denies a case, the person in question can make an appeal to a judge and again to the Board of Immigration Appeals. The expedited removal and apprehension process largely remains unchanged, officials said.
The officials Wednesday could not say how broadly they plan to execute the policy, which is expected to begin some time at the end of May or beginning of June, only that it would be a careful, gradual implementation.
ABC News' Benjamin Gittleson contributed to this report.