The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

How the Number of ‘Credible Fear’ Refugees Skyrocketed in the Obama Years

People caught crossing the border illegally in custody at the McAllen Border Patrol Station in McAllen, Texas, July 15, 2014. (Rick Loomis/Pool via Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: How our refugee system works, and how the number of “credible fear” cases before the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service exploded during Barack Obama’s presidency; David Lynch makes a surprising assessment of our politics (or maybe it’s just his doppelgänger from the Black Lodge), and Leaving Cloud 9 hits bookstore shelves.

Is the Asylum-Application Process Being Abused?

In the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980, Congress defined a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Refugees can request asylum and, if granted, they are protected from being returned to their home country, are authorized to work in the United States, may apply for a Social Security card, may request permission to travel overseas, and can petition to bring family members to the United States. Asylees may also be eligible for certain benefits, such as Medicaid or Refugee Medical Assistance.

If a person who does not have permission to enter the country encounters an immigration official, they can inform the official that they have a “credible fear” of being tortured or prosecuted if they return to their country. Then they will be taken before an immigration judge with an opportunity to prove that they “either have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion if returned to their country.” (This is all language from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services web site.) Fears of prosecution are not sufficient for entry if there is evidence that the applicant is a potential threat to the United States.

It’s fair to wonder whether fear of a cartel or gang, or other groups of criminals is what the law intended when it referred to “persecution.” Traditionally, persecution is done by someone in a position of official or semi-official authority.

The number of “credible fear” cases skyrocketed during the Obama years. In fiscal 2009, there were 5,523 cases handled by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. The number of cases increased slowly during Obama’s first term; in fiscal 2012, CIS handled 12,056 cases. But in fiscal 2013, the annual total nearly tripled to 33,283, and the year after that jumped to 45,216. By fiscal 2016, it was up to its peak, 81,864. In fiscal 2017 — which covers roughly the last five months of the Obama administration and the first seven months of the Trump administration — the numbers dipped somewhat, to 69,152. In fiscal 2018 so far, it is 24,774 cases.

As I asked on Twitter over the weekend, did the world get 16 times more dangerous from 2009 to 2016? (I’ll bet quite a few critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy would say, “Well, yeah!”)

Or did the Citizenship and Immigration Service get more lenient in its assessment of “credible fear”? Or did migrants coming across the border get instructions on what to say to immigration officials to meet the threshold for “credible fear”?

Last year, in an article about Latin American migrants, the Guardian offered this quote:

“Domestic violence is one of the main motivations for women fleeing Central America but which has been made invisible by the domination of the gang discourse,” said Amarela Varela, a migration and gender scholar at the Autonomous University of Mexico City.

An abusive boyfriend or husband is a crime and a tragedy, but that does not make a woman a refugee. If our law redefines refugee as anyone fearing any violence from anyone, we will turn the United States into the shelter for everyone in an abusive relationship or in a dangerous neighborhood around the world. Keep in mind, the United States has welcomed more than 1 million legal immigrants a year since 2004.

We would be well served to focus on why the number of people seeking and meeting the “credible fear” threshold octupled in a four-year span. We are a generous and merciful country, but we expect our rules to be followed. If your life experience doesn’t meet the legal definitions and requirements to be considered a “refugee,” and you’re granted asylum anyway, then you are abusing the system. The asylum system is designed to protect refugees and political prisoners and human-rights activists, not to be used as an easier backdoor alternative to the regular immigration system.

As the boss notes on the Corner, “About 90 percent pass [credible fear] interviews, even though less than 20 percent ultimately get asylum. Clearly, we should be tightening up on the front end before a migrant making a dubious claim enters into a years-long legal process.”

But because there are likely to be at least some genuine refugees, with send-me-back-to-my-home-country-and-authorities-will-torture-or-kill-me status, we still need some sort of system for emulating these claims. When President Trump tweets, as he did Sunday, “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came” . . . well, it’s kind of hard to square that sentiment with “the rule of law.”

David Lynch, Not Quite a Trump Fan, But Not Quite a Critic, Either

You probably saw the surprising headline, “David Lynch: Trump could be remembered as one of the greatest presidents.” The famously strange and enigmatic director’s full comment is a little more nuanced.

Politically, meanwhile, Lynch is all over the map. He voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and thinks – he’s not sure – he voted Libertarian in the presidential election. “I am not really a political person, but I really like the freedom to do what you want to do,” says the persecuted Californian smoker.

He is undecided about Donald Trump. “He could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history because he has disrupted the thing so much. No one is able to counter this guy in an intelligent way.” While Trump may not be doing a good job himself, Lynch thinks, he is opening up a space where other outsiders might. “Our so-called leaders can’t take the country forward, can’t get anything done. Like children, they are. Trump has shown all this.”

From that, he sounds pretty disengaged from the day-to-day debates roiling our politics and merely appreciating Trump more as an outsider figure than for any of his policies.

But status as an outsider isn’t inherently good or bad; almost everyone begins as an outsider, except for the offspring of powerful politicians like Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson and Florida governor Rick Scott were outsiders when they first ran for statewide office. So was recently resigned Missouri governor Eric Greitens and infamous Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. Oprah, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, liberal billionaire activist Tom Steyer, and outgoing Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz are all “outsiders” the way Trump is, but they would pursue drastically different policies. It’s not hard to imagine a future president who has all of Trump’s unfamiliarity with Washington, how laws are made, and how the government works, but with Leftist ideology.

My obsessive appreciation for the original version of Twin Peaks is well established, but that short-lived legendary series is easier to appreciate than Lynch himself. As a creator, he’s like strong liquor — not for everyone, and sometimes better appreciated with a mixer such as Peaks co-creator Mark Frost, who can take Lynch’s otherworldly visions and translate them into something more grounded and with a more traditional narrative. (I don’t care how much the two men insist they’re on the same page; Frost’s books paint a dramatically different and much more accessible portrait than the Showtime series did.)

Lynch is clearly sometimes brilliant but also indisputably, deeply weird — far too strange for most people to connect with — and he returns to the “life is a dream” themes so much that one wonders if, in his mind, the dreaming world and the awake world blur.

It’s Publication ‘Day One’ for Leaving Cloud Nine

It’s publication day for a new book from our old friend Ericka Andersen — Leaving Cloud 9: The True Story of a Life Resurrected From the Ashes of Poverty, Trauma and Mental Illness. As the excerpt on NRO shows, this is not necessarily easy reading, but if you need to be reassured that people can overcome the hardest and most depressing circumstances, and that if you’re going through hell, keep on going, because someday you may emerge safer and wiser and stronger, this is the book for you.

ADDENDUM: Today I’m scheduled to appear on HLN around 12:30 Eastern — talking about civility, politics, and the current trajectory of our public discourse.

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