Editorial: Trump is winning his crusade against asylum seekers

People line up to cross into the United States near the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, to begin the process of applying for asylum on July 26.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Here’s the cold, hard, disheartening reality about the Trump administration’s policies toward those arriving at the nation’s borders seeking asylum: Many more people with legitimate claims are likely being sent home to perilous conditions despite federal and international laws recognizing the right of the persecuted to seek sanctuary in other countries. That is unconscionable.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which collects and aggregates a wide range of federal data, reports that immigration judges — who work for the Justice Department, not the federal courts — are granting asylum seekers’ appeals half as often as they did a year ago. Through June, courts revived less than 15% of the asylum claims that had been rejected by immigration agents, who make the initial determination whether an asylum seeker had a credible fear of persecution if returned home.

What changed from the first half of 2017? The reduction of successful appeals coincided with comments by Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions that the asylum system “is being gamed” (there’s little evidence of that), demands by Sessions that immigration courts handle appeals more quickly, and the roll-out of performance quotas to force immigration judges to clear cases faster. That’s what changed.


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The TRAC analysis further found that rate of successful appeals varies wildly by geographic region and even among judges within the same regional court — a systemic inconsistency that predates the Trump administration. That justice is so fickle is neither fair nor meets our moral and legal obligations to those fleeing persecution.

We can rail against the Justice Department’s failings, but the responsibility rests with Congress. In adopting asylum laws, it granted the department wide latitude in handling asylum requests from people facing persecution based on race, religion, race, political beliefs, nationality or membership in a particular social group.

That last, ill-defined category gave the government flexibility as times and needs warranted, but it also has led to uncertainty and politicization. Sessions, for instance, recently overturned an Obama-era immigration court definition that made asylum available to women who faced domestic violence in countries where police failed to protect them. So a political change in the attorney general’s office can weigh more heavily than precedents set by immigration judges.

This is fixable if we ever get a Congress willing to compromise and craft comprehensive immigration reforms framed within a humanitarian context and informed by the nation’s best interests — in terms of diversity and economic growth — and not pandering to the current mood in the capital of nationalistic antipathy for the foreign-born. In the meantime, we must insist that people who are deserving of sanctuary receive it, and not get turned away to satisfy current political whims.

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