Individuals asking for asylum represent a small portion of the millions of people seeking entry to the United States each year. But their petitions, and their subsequent treatment, present a very large moral issue for the country.
This is, after all, a country that champions human rights and abhors the oppression asylum seekers are fleeing. So when charges arise of unfair or inconsistent treatment of such people, Americans should be concerned. Such charges have multiplied since a new law went into effect in April 1997.
The law speeds up the process of assessing the validity of asylum claims - particularly those made by people just arriving, often without correct documentation. When such individuals make their desire for asylum known, they are interviewed by Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officers specially trained to weigh asylum claims. These officers can grant asylum or deny it. If they deny it, however, individuals are referred to an immigration court for further resolution of their claims.
The INS is quick to point out that its officers don't have the authority to deport people they suspect of making false asylum claims. That power rests with immigration courts and judges, part of a separate branch of the Justice Department, the Executive Office of Immigration Review.
But the INS asylum officers do have enhanced responsibilities under the 1997 law. They make the initial judgment on whether claims are real or fraudulent, and thus have a large role in determining how asylum seekers are treated in the US. The quality of their training to assess the psychological and physical evidence of torture or other mistreatment is critical.
The INS is committed to thorough preparation of these officers. But there are hundreds of them at various points of entry to the US. Their workloads can be heavy - on top of the already daunting task of determining people's future.
The next level up for asylum seekers are the 40 immigration courts, staffed by 220 immigration judges. These courts adjudicate some 200,000 asylum claims a year, with the INS arguing for denial of the claim and private immigration lawyers representing the claimants. If the decision goes against asylum seekers, they can still appeal their case to the Board of Immigration Appeals - which currently has a backlog of 25,000 cases.
Does this administrative and legal structure fairly treat thousands of asylum seekers, some of whom face severe threats if they're returned home? Recent news reports have examined gaping differences in what people experience in one port of entry versus another. Asylum seekers coming into New York, for example, are much more likely to be held in prison-like detention centers while their claims are being decided than people who debark in Miami.
A spokesperson for the immigration courts says the disparities could stem from the availability of detention space, where it's located, and the logistics of connecting people with legal counsel. Whatever the causes, greater uniformity across the country would serve the cause of justice.
Even more important, the INS, which runs the detention centers, has a responsibility to ensure that asylum seekers being held because of doubts as to their claims are treated respectfully and humanely. These people should not be assumed frauds.
Clearly, the sheer volume of asylum claims taxes the system, even with speeded up procedures. The INS says its officers are trained to be cautious about denying asylum, which is good. Efficiency in procedures is one value. A greater one is fairness, in keeping with international standards for treating refugees and with America's reputation as a haven for the oppressed.