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Attention America: There’s an asylum iceberg dead ahead

A Ukrainian police officer helps people as artillery echoes nearby while fleeing Irpin in the outskirts of Kyiv
Associated Press/Emilio Morenatti

Despite the demographic trends, recent warnings and policy advisories, America is failing to recognize the asylum iceberg dead ahead.  

If authorities do nothing to avert the asylum iceberg, as seems to be the current trajectory, the country’s immigration agencies, officials, courts, facilities, etc., will be overwhelmed by the large numbers of men, women and children seeking asylum in America.  

The annual number of refugees allowed in the U.S., — those who fled their country and are recognized to be at risk of serious human rights violations and persecution — is set by the administration. In contrast, America does not have a limit on the number of asylum seekers, those who have fled their country but are not recognized as refugees and are waiting for a decision on their asylum claim. 

For the fiscal year 2021, the U.S. anticipated receiving close to 300,000 new asylum claimants. In addition to the new claims, more than 1.1 million asylum seekers inside the U.S. are awaiting adjudication of their claims, which on average takes about five years.  

Recently the administration announced new procedures permitting some migrants seeking asylum to have their claims heard and evaluated by asylum officers instead of immigration judges within a period of six months.  

The administration also increased the number of refugees allowed into the country. For the 2022 fiscal year, the cap was set at 125,000, or double the number of refugees allowed in the previous year. But just like an iceberg, the numbers seeking asylum and refuge just below the surface are many times larger than the cap of 125,000 refugees. 

In fiscal year 2021, for example, border patrol arrests of unauthorized migrants reached a record high of 1.7 million. In February, the number of encounters with unauthorized migrants at the southern border was 165,000, a 63 percent jump from February 2021. 

The total number of refugees worldwide has reached a record high of 30 million. That figure includes 3.7 million refugees as of mid-March who fled Ukraine due to Russia’s invasion. Also, 4 million Venezuelans are displaced abroad and more than 4 million people are asylum seekers. 

America’s annual cap of 125,000 refugees is less than half a percent, or 0.4 percent, of the world’s total refugees. If America were to accept refugees relative to its population size, i.e., about four percent of the world’s population, the cap would be 10 times larger: 1.2 million refugees. 

Since 1975, America has welcomed an estimated 3 million refugees. During the most recent fiscal year, however, America admitted about 11,000 refugees, the lowest number in 40 years. 

Many countries host more refugees than America. At the end of 2021, for example, Turkey had 3.7 million refugees, followed by Columbia with 1.7 million, Pakistan and Uganda each with 1.4 million and Germany with 1.2 million. More recently, Poland as of mid-March was hosting 2 million refugees. 

Migrants attempting to enter America leave their countries due to sinking economies, shortages of food and medicines, the global pandemic, natural disasters, political tensions and crime. In fiscal year 2021, border agents caught nearly 2 million migrants from more than 160 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Also, among the 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, a recent poll found 42 million people wanting to migrate to America. In addition, increasing numbers outside Latin America are transiting throughout the region in order to reach the U.S. southern border.  

In fiscal year 2019, for example, migrants from 35 African nationalities were intercepted at the border. Also, thousands of migrants from Asia, particularly India as well as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, attempted to enter the southern border. 

During the past two years, officials utilized Title 42, a Trump-era public health order started at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic permitting the rapid expulsion of unauthorized migrants without offering them an opportunity to claim asylum. Title 42 was employed more than 1 million times to remove unauthorized migrants at the southern border. 

The government has often underestimated the numbers of unauthorized migrants seeking to enter America. For example, despite warnings of a migration surge following the recent presidential election, the government seemed taken aback when record numbers attempted unauthorized entry at the southern border. 

The increasing numbers of unauthorized migrants seeking asylum worldwide are contributing to the growth of America’s iceberg. Globally, asylum claims have increased fourfold over the levels a decade ago and the number of refugees has also grown threefold since 2010. In America, the increase in the number of new asylum requests was sixfold between 2008 and 2018.   

As poverty, unemployment and poor governance are not among the grounds for entry into the country, many unauthorized migrants attempt to seek asylum. In a reversal of the previous administration’s policy, unauthorized migrants are now permitted to seek asylum over credible fears of domestic abuse and gang violence.  

With the pandemic being brought under control, Title 42 may be rescinded. Some Democratic Party representatives, immigration advocacy organizations and human rights groups have been calling for its termination. However, other political leaders have raised concerns about the serious consequences at the southern border of ending Title 42. 

Recently, the administration terminated part of Title 42 relating to unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border. Single adults and migrant families, however, continue to be subject to it. When Title 42 is lifted, which some believe will likely happen soon, new waves of men, women and children seeking asylum can be expected to arrive at the border. 

Some intelligence officials have estimated an influx of more than 170,000 unauthorized migrants at the southern border if COVID-era policies limiting entry are terminated. Others have warned of as many as 1 million border crossings within six weeks of when Title 42 is lifted. 

So, attention America. An asylum iceberg is dead ahead. Given the country’s current political trajectory, it will be difficult to avert it. 

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and the author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”

Tags Asylum seeker Demography European migrant crisis Forced migration Human migration Immigration Mexico–United States border crisis Population Refugee refugees

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