President Biden is moving forward with the asylum reforms as part of sweeping changes to the immigration system he hopes to implement.

President Biden is moving forward with the asylum reforms as part of sweeping changes to the immigration system he hopes to implement. Susan Walsh / AP

Biden Proposes Dramatic Hiring Surge in Asylum Workforce as Part of Immigration Overhaul

The administration is looking to more than double the number of asylum employees as it shifts responsibilities between agencies.

The Biden administration is looking to overhaul the asylum process for immigrants arriving at the border, shifting responsibilities and seeking to hire thousands of new federal employees. 

The move would allow Homeland Security Department personnel within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to quickly rule on asylum cases, bypassing the severely backlogged immigration courts housed within the Justice Department. The change would speed up the way claims are processed, the administration said, allowing migrants to remain in the United States if they demonstrate they are likely to encounter certain dangers upon returning to their home countries. 

As part of the overhaul, USCIS is seeking to hire at least 800, and up to 4,600, new employees. The administration said in a notice of proposed rulemaking that it did not want to unload responsibilities from Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review onto DHS without providing it with the proper resources to handle the new work. 

“In proposing this rule, the departments seek to avoid simply shifting work from a resource-challenged EOIR to a similarly resource-challenged USCIS Asylum Division,” it wrote. “DHS seeks to fully resource the USCIS Asylum Division to handle their present workloads and this new workload prior to the USCIS full takeover of the adjudication of protection claims that follow a positive credible fear determination.”

DHS estimated it has sufficient funding to bring on the 800 asylum officers and support staff, a process it expects to begin before the end of September. That estimate, however—which would come with a $180 million price tag—is the low end of the department’s projections. Its “primary estimate” would see a total of more than 2,000 new positions, more than doubling the current asylum workforce. That would allow USCIS to handle 150,000 asylum cases at the border, which would mark an increase from recent years and cost $438 million. The upper-bound estimate, which DHS called “unlikely” to occur, would cost nearly $1 billion. 

While DHS and Justice will allow 60 days for comments on their proposed rule, USCIS is planning to immediately move forward on finalizing job descriptions, posting the positions and beginning the hiring process. Most of the new employees will be brought on as GS-13s, a higher pay grade than current asylum officers due to the increased responsibilities. 

Under current policy, USCIS officers conduct only preliminary “credible fear” screenings to determine whether immigrants’ removals should be put on hold. Those who receive a favorable determination are then referred to EOIR to have their case heard before an immigration judge. Under the new system, those immigrants would still have another hearing but would only have to deal with asylum officers. Those whose credible fear cases are rejected by USCIS would still have the opportunity to appeal to an immigration judge, if they make such a request. 

“These proposed changes will significantly improve DHS’s and DOJ’s ability to more promptly and efficiently consider the asylum claims of individuals encountered at or near the border, while ensuring fundamental fairness,” said Secretary Ali Mayorkas. “Individuals who are eligible will receive relief more swiftly, while those who are not eligible will be expeditiously removed.”

USCIS currently has a backlog of 400,000 asylum cases, a number that has doubled since 2016. Immigration courts, meanwhile, have a backlog of nearly 1.4 million cases. 

“Today marks a step forward in our effort to make the asylum process fairer and more expeditious,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. “This rule will both reduce the caseload in our immigration courts and protect the rights of those fleeing persecution and violence.”

The hiring would mark a dramatic shift at USCIS. After growing the asylum workforce and filling extensive vacancies, the Trump administration threatened to furlough about 70% of USCIS employees due to funding shortfalls. It ultimately backtracked, but implemented a lengthy hiring freeze. USCIS now has about 800 asylum officers, compared to just 238 in fiscal 2012. 

President Biden is moving forward with the asylum reforms as part of sweeping changes to the immigration system he hopes to implement. The proposal also comes as arrests at the southern border have soared to rates not seen in decades, a situation that has strained resources across government and left immigrants’ cases in even longer delays. Due to pandemic-related emergency authority first invoked by Trump and still in place under Biden, most migrants arriving at the border are immediately turned away without the opportunity to claim asylum.