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It’s official: Trump’s asylum crisis is driven by people coming legally

New stats make clear that the Trump administration can’t handle asylum seekers crossing “the right way.”

Central American migrants look through a border fence as a US Border Partol agents stands guard near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on November 25, 2018. Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump and senior administration officials have justified their border crackdown by saying that asylum seekers ought to come to the US legally, by presenting themselves at a port of entry, rather than crossing the border illegally and starting the process once in the US.

New numbers show that that’s exactly what happened — and the Trump administration wasn’t necessarily ready for it.

On Monday, Customs and Border Protection released statistics on how many people had claimed a fear of persecution, the first step in the asylum process, after crossing illegally and being caught by Border Patrol agents, and how many claimed fear when found to be “inadmissible” (without valid papers) trying to cross legally at a port of entry.

In context, the numbers make it clear that there are three phenomena at the border, nested inside each other.

At the broadest level, there was a 25 percent increase in people coming into the US without papers from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018 — a big one-year increase, but one largely based on how few people came into the US at the beginning of Trump’s first term.

There’s a more intense spike — 67 percent — in the number of asylum seekers coming. And most specifically and critically, there’s a 121 percent jump in asylum seekers coming legally to ports of entry.

The share of illegal border crossers who sought asylum increased just 1 percentage point, from 13 percent to 14 percent, from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018. But the share of people coming to the US at ports of entry who sought asylum nearly doubled: from 16 percent of all “inadmissible” people at ports of entry in 2017 to 31 percent of “inadmissibles” in 2018.

Customs and Border Protection officials acknowledged Monday that even more people would be seeking asylum at ports of entry if officials weren’t engaging in “queue management” — also known as “metering” — a policy by which asylum seekers are often turned away at ports of entry because officials say there’s no room to process them.

The current numbers are “really a reflection of what we could intake and process in FY2018,” a Customs and Border Protection senior official told reporters Monday. “This number would be higher if not for resource constraints at ports of entry,” the reason CBP gives for why they’ve limited the number of asylum seekers who can enter the US through the most popular border crossings since this summer.

In other words, the asylum “crisis” that has so consumed the president is in large part a crisis that’s happening at ports of entry, where people are trying to come the right way.

Along the western sectors of the border, a majority of asylum seekers are coming legally

“Inadmissible” aliens include everyone processed at a port of entry without proper papers — not only asylum seekers but people who try to come in with expired visas, people who are denied entry because they’re on a watch list, and people who are caught being smuggled in vehicles crossing into the US.

But the new stats show that fewer people came to ports of entry without papers for reasons other than seeking asylum in 2018 than in 2017 (even as a lot more non-asylum seekers tried to cross into the US between ports of entry). And thousands more people came to those ports to seek asylum.

Across the border, there are still more people seeking asylum after crossing between ports of entry than at them. But that’s largely due to the fact that a ton of asylum-seeking families are coming in through the Rio Grande Valley, an area controlled by smugglers where the bridges at ports of entry are often unsafe.

In Arizona, according to Vox’s analysis of the CBP data, nearly half of all asylum seekers are coming at ports of entry. In California, it’s more than half.

And Trump administration officials agree with human rights advocates that those numbers would be even higher if the “metering” policy weren’t in effect.

Before 2016, seeking asylum legally was perfectly straightforward. An asylum seeker presented herself at an official port of entry, said she feared persecution in her home country, and was processed as an “inadmissible” alien. Eventually, she’d be given a screening interview by an asylum officer to determine whether she’d be able to submit a full application.

But a tactic that the Obama administration first adopted in 2016 as an emergency measure at a couple of ports in California has become, since this summer, a near-constant state of affairs at most of the major border crossings where migrants arrive on foot.

Thousands of people were waiting to cross at the San Ysidro port of entry, in Tijuana, even before the Central American caravan began to arrive in town in November. During a week in September, no asylum seeker was taken in at the main port in Nogales, Arizona. The American Civil Liberties Union (citing the Mexican government) estimated in October that 450 people were waiting on bridges in El Paso.

As I wrote last month, the question of who, exactly, is to blame for metering — whether the Trump administration is telling the truth when it cites a resource shortage, and whether that shortage is within its power to fix — is very much an open question.

But the new stats raise the possibility that the practice might actually be causing more people to give up and cross illegally in some areas. In El Paso, the increase from 2017 to 2018 in people seeking asylum at ports of entry was smaller than any other region — quite possibly due to the aggressive metering policies in place there. But the increase in people crossing between ports of entry and then claiming asylum was larger than any other region.

CBP officials maintain that solving the problem isn’t as simple as increasing capacity at ports of entry — that the much bigger issue is that once people are processed, they too often disappear before finishing their asylum proceedings.

But for all the accusations that asylum seekers are taking advantage of American generosity and trying to circumvent American law, we now have pretty suggestive official evidence that the current crisis is, as much as anything, a result of more people coming the right way than the administration is equipped to allow in.

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