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opinion | Laila Hlass

Congress cries wolf on asylum fraud

Arrests don’t show the system is broken. They show it works.

Keith negley for the boston globe

In DecEMBER 2012, federal agents raided a Chinatown law office in New York City, leading prosecutors to charge 30 people — including lawyers, interpreters, paralegals, and even a church employee — in an elaborate scheme to help hundreds of immigrants from China apply for asylum based on fabricated stories of suffering back home.

The raid, as the trials surrounding it have begun, has become national news in recent weeks, with papers including The New York Times putting it on their front pages. It’s also just the latest target of hand-wringing both in Congress and the broader public over fraud in a broken asylum system. The case led four GOP House members in late February to ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate oversight of asylum cases to ensure public tax dollars aren’t going to support immigrants in the United States based on false claims. In reality, though, there is little evidence that widespread fraud exists.

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A recent empirical study of asylum decisions by US immigration officials, in fact, draws a very different conclusion. Every year, thousands of immigrants come to the United States seeking protection from persecution or violence in their countries. Looking at the past 14 years, law professors Andrew Schoenholtz, Philip Schrag, and Jaya Ramji-Nogales found a meaningful relationship between asylum being granted to applicants from certain countries and the seriousness of human rights violations in those countries. What this correlation suggests is that the people who should be receiving asylum are and that our system is working fairly well.

Fraud, particularly among the desperate, can exist in any public-benefit system, and the key is to root it out. Fortunately, our asylum system already has many safeguards in place: mandatory biographical and security checks, a fraud detection unit, mandatory supervisory review of all asylum decisions, government-funded monitoring of translators, and extensive asylum officer training. Asylum-seekers must provide extensive corroboration that they face significant danger if they return to their home country, and any inconsistencies or even just the discretion of the adjudicator can be grounds enough to deny asylum under current law.

Even more, however, the idea of widespread fraud disregards an essential fact — immigrants who apply for asylum affirmatively do so at tremendous risk. Applicants turned down for asylum consistently face deportation. And if it is proven someone has lied on an asylum application, he may be subject to criminal penalties, including jail time and fines, and he is banned from seeking legal status in the United States.

The public’s focus on decrying fraud overshadows other growing cracks within the asylum system. While money has poured into immigration enforcement, spending on adjudication hasn’t kept pace, causing backlogs in most cases that can last many months or years. As of January, about 360,000 immigration court cases were pending for an average of 573 days, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Meanwhile, applicants are separated from loved ones who may still be in danger from their governments.

Immigration officers and judges, faced with this backlog, are forced to make life-or-death decisions under tight time pressures. As Dana L. Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco, once said, it’s “like doing death-penalty cases in a traffic-court setting.” Only Congress can address this staffing crisis.

In the meantime, the Chinatown fraud ring should be seen for what it is — existing fraud protections working as they should and ensuring those who attempt to deceive immigration officials are held accountable.

Laila Hlass is a clinical teaching fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center. She will join the law faculty at Boston University in July.
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