Access to Asylum Can’t be Treated as a Bargaining Chip in the Foreign Aid Debate

Republicans want permanent concessions on asylum policy in exchange for one-time agreements to provide foreign aid. 

A young asylum seeker is carried by his mother after crossing the nearby border with Mexico near the Jacumba Hot Springs on Nov. 30, 2023, in San Diego, Calif. (Qian Weizhong / VCG via Getty Images)

The Senate is feverishly debating the president’s $106 billion supplemental budget, which includes requests for additional aid to Ukraine and Israel, measures to counter China’s influence, significant humanitarian assistance funds, and border security. The debate is not turning on how much or whether to provide different aspects of the aid, though. Instead, it’s focused on whether the country is willing to trade access to asylum for foreign aid objectives.

What’s behind this strange development? Because the supplemental includes additional funding to support border security, including increasing the number of asylum officers and immigration judges handling asylum claims, Republican negotiators have chosen to use the urgency of the foreign aid requests to squeeze concessions from the administration and Democratic senators around the asylum process itself.

This dangerous strategy threatens to upend our asylum system and to further limit the president’s authority to take life-saving actions to provide humanitarian assistance. As Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) noted on the Senate floor, Republicans want permanent concessions on asylum policy in exchange for one-time agreements to provide foreign aid. 

It’s a disproportionate bargain—particularly when the details are disclosed. News reports indicate that Republicans want to change the threshold screening standard for determining whether an asylum seeker at the border will be allowed to apply for asylum from showing a credible fear of persecution to a reasonable fear of persecution. They also want to curtail the president’s parole authority and to deny asylum access to anyone who didn’t first apply for asylum in any country they traveled through to get to the U.S.

Each of these demands are detrimental to our ability to provide humanitarian protection to people who need it—such as Afghans fleeing the Taliban, women fleeing domestic violence in Central America, or Venezuelan and Ukrainians eligible to enter the U.S. through targeted parole programs.

The issues are so complex, in fact, that they have no business being part of a debate over levels of funding for foreign aid.

Proposed Changes to ‘Credible Fear’ Screening Standard

To illustrate, let’s dig deeper into the proposed change in the screening standard.  

Credible fear screening takes place within the expedited removal process, an accelerated form of removal which allows the government to eject people without having a full hearing before a judge. Expedited removal has been controversial since it was implemented in 1997, in large part because asylum seekers are subject to a screening process on a complicated, highly technical legal matter without the benefit of counsel or even the opportunity to take time to get their bearings after a long and arduous journey to the U.S.

Victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, for instance, may be too traumatized to tell their stories within a few days of arrival. Others fleeing persecution may have no idea what they need to share about their experiences to suggest that their case has a possibility of receiving asylum.

Consequently, expedited removal was used sparingly at first, but it came to be seen by both Republican and Democratic administrations as a quick fix for dealing with the increasing number of asylum seekers arriving at the border in the last decade because it circumvented the immigration court process.

Whether the motives are reuniting with family, the search for a better life, fear of persecution, or, as is often the case, a combination, deterrence has yet to stem the flow.

Today, expedited removal is the primary tool for deportation, which means thousands and thousands of credible fear screenings are conducted annually—so much so that asylum offices are logging years long backlogs for adjudicating formal asylum cases. Imposing a higher standard would likely mean that far fewer people would be allowed to apply for asylum; it would definitely mean that some people with legitimate asylum claims will be turned away.

In essence, making access—simply access—to the asylum process more difficult is thought by proponents to be the way to deter more border crossings. Lost in this simplistic approach to managing the border is the question of why people continue to come to the United States. Whether the motives are reuniting with family, the search for a better life, fear of persecution, or, as is often the case, a combination, deterrence has yet to stem the flow.

Republicans Attempt to Trade Foreign Aid for Asylum Restrictions

Conditioning foreign aid on ever more restrictive asylum policies is particularly troubling for two reasons.

First, the broad sweep of these proposals mirrors Trump administration regulations and policies for deterring asylum seekers, policies that uniformly were rejected by the courts as violating the law and international obligations. The fact that some moderate Democratic senators and other government officials have been tempted to support these policies to seal the deal—and that the White House appears to be encouraging the trade-off—exemplifies how deeply the anti-immigrant agenda of the Trump administration has infiltrated conventional politics and inflames the political debate, leaving no room for thoughtful solutions, of which there are many.

Which leads to the second point: As Hirono noted, the proposed changes aren’t temporary and wouldn’t come up for debate annually in the way that foreign aid decisions routinely do. Changing the asylum laws is merely a way to scapegoat asylum seekers, while ignoring the underlying issues that plague our immigration system. Inadequate temporary and permanent visas, a wider range of options for living and working in the U.S. easily, and expanded refugee and other humanitarian protections would all go a long way to reducing congestion and uncertainty at the border. That just doesn’t have the same ring to it, however, as the wild flights of fancy equating the credible fear standard with the rise in fentanyl smuggling, as some senators have claimed.

Take Action

A group of 10 Democratic senators recently pledged to protect the asylum system from these attacks and challenged the Republicans to sit down with them to craft genuine immigration reform. It is important to reinforce that message and to ask members of Congress to stop blaming asylum seekers for their own failure to address our crumbling immigration system.

Changing the asylum laws is merely a way to scapegoat asylum seekers, while ignoring the underlying issues that plague our immigration system.

If lawmakers want to save face, they could agree to a thorough review of all the costs associated with managing the border, including the impact of prioritizing enforcement measures over other aspects of immigration law, overall costs to communities, and the economic contributions of asylum seekers and others living in the U.S. as they await a decision on their cases. They could pledge to renew work on comprehensive reform. They could agree that the policy questions here are so important that they can’t be casually bargained away. Or they could just acknowledge that protecting the right to asylum at home is as crucial as protecting democracy abroad and get back to the business of governing the country.

Let your senators know that you do not support using asylum as a bargaining chip in the supplemental debate. If they are serious about protecting the country, then they must get serious about crafting fair and common-sense immigration policies. Call the Senate switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to speak to your senators today.

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Mary Giovagnoli is an immigration attorney and policy expert who has worked for over 25 years in both the federal government and nonprofit advocacy to improve the immigration system. She is a former executive director of the Refugee Council USA. She served as the DHS deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy from 2015 to 2017.