Lives in the Balance: Asylum Adjudication by the Department of Homeland Security

Lives in the Balance: Asylum Adjudication by the Department of Homeland Security

Lives in the Balance: Asylum Adjudication by the Department of Homeland Security

Lives in the Balance: Asylum Adjudication by the Department of Homeland Security

Synopsis

Although Americans generally think that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is focused only on preventing terrorism, one office within that agency has a humanitarian mission. Its Asylum Office adjudicates applications from people fleeing persecution in their homelands. Lives in the Balance is a careful empirical analysis of how Homeland Security decided these asylum cases over a recent fourteen-year period. Day in and day out, asylum officers make decisions with life-or-death consequences: determining which applicants are telling the truth and are at risk of persecution in their home countries, and which are ineligible for refugee status in America. In Lives in the Balance, the authors analyze a database of 383,000 cases provided to them by the government in order to better understand the effect on grant rates of a host of factors unrelated to the merits of asylum claims, including the one-year filing deadline, whether applicants entered the United States with a visa, whether applicants had dependents, whether they were represented, how many asylum cases their adjudicator had previously decided, and whether or not their adjudicator was a lawyer. The authors also examine the degree to which decisions were consistent among the eight regional asylum offices and within each of those offices. The authors' recommendations, including repeal of the one-year deadline, would improve the adjudication process by reducing the impact of non-merits factors on asylum decisions. If adopted by the government, these proposals would improve the accuracy of outcomes for those whose lives hang in the balance.

Excerpt

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), established by Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is the third-largest federal agency, with more than 180,000 employees. Most of its many functions are well known to the public and associated with national security or law and order. The department seeks to protect the nation against future terrorist attacks by disaffected citizens or foreign nationals. It houses the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which responds to natural disasters and, if necessary, major terrorist incidents. Through its Transportation Security Administration and its air marshals, it keeps air traffic safe, at times in controversial ways, by screening passengers and tracking potential hijackers. Its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors screen individuals arriving at airports, seaports, and land points of entry, seeking to exclude those who do not have a right to enter the United States, and CBP border patrol agents guard the southern and northern land borders to prevent entry by those who try to circumvent the established entry points. A cybersecurity unit works to safeguard the country from people who would attack its electronic infrastructure.

Within this sprawling national security bureaucracy lies a relatively tiny unit with a distinctly humanitarian mission: the nation’s Asylum Office. The office is one of three very important bodies that offer the protection of the United States to people who fear persecution in their home countries. Along with the Justice Department’s immigration courts and Board of Immigration Appeals, the Asylum Office carries out the duties assigned to the executive branch by the Refugee Act of 1980. These responsibilities reflect the value that Americans place on providing safe haven to people across the globe who are threatened with imprisonment, torture, and death because of their political beliefs or activities, their religion, their race or ethnicity, or their membership in disfavored groups. The Asylum Office also helps to fulfill the United States’ international obligations under the United Nations Refugee Protocol, a treaty to which the United States has been a party since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

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