WASHINGTON -- The number of immigrants asking for asylum after illegally entering the United States nearly tripled this year, sending asylum claims to their highest level in two decades and raising concerns that border crossers and members of drug cartels may be filing fraudulent claims to slow their eventual deportation.
The tally of those granted temporary asylum jumped from 13,931 to 36,026 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to a report released Thursday by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. It's unclear how many claims might involve fraud.
Immigrants who can show a "credible fear" of being persecuted in their home country based on race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion may be referred to an immigration court and released inside the United States if they pass a criminal background check.
They must appear before an immigration judge at an assigned time, but court dates can sometimes take a year or two to schedule. If an asylum claim is denied, the applicant can be deported immediately.
“It appears to me that word has gotten out that a ‘credible fear’ claim might be a good way to get into the country,” Rep.
"Let's make sure that if someone really fears death that America is a safe place for them," he said.
Border Patrol officials are concerned that drug cartels may be coaching drug runners to claim asylum in hopes of being allowed to stay in the U.S. longer.
"It might be creating a magnet effect," a Homeland Security official said after the hearing, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with the media.
Ruth E. Wasem, a specialist in immigration policy for the Congressional Research Service who analyzed the claim data for committee, warned that there wasn't enough data to determine whether the spike in claims could be attributed to fraud. Courts have yet to review most of the claims, she said.
"The increase alone does not signify an abuse of the claims," Wasem told the panel.
The uptick in claims came mostly from immigrants asking not to be deported to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and to a lesser extent to Mexico, India and Ecuador, Wasem said.
About 360,000 people are apprehended by the Border Patrol each year while trying to enter the country illegally.