I’ve shared a little bit before about how the asylum process works in the U.S.. It’s a complicated topic that can and has filled many books by many smart people. As I continue digging deeper into learning, I like to share what I’ve found — but it will take several posts!

It’s important to note that filing the asylum application is nowhere near the end of the process. With the current backlog in the immigration court system, someone can wait many months or even years to have their case heard in court. So what happens to the asylum seekers while they wait?

President Trump has long criticized the use of what he calls “catch and release” for migrants waiting on a decision in their asylum case. This term refers to the practice of releasing asylum seekers to remain in the U.S. until their court date. Many asylum seekers have family who can sponsor them in the U.S. while they await the court’s decision.

The Trump administration has shifted from this practice by taking several different steps. These include turning back applicants at the border either through “metering” or under the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” and also detaining greater numbers of migrants in federal detention centers.


This practice began in 2018 due Border Patrol declaring that they were overburdened with too many asylum applicants at the border. They began a practice known as metering. This means they only accept a certain number of applicants per day. After reaching the limit, any further applicants are returned to Mexico without completing their asylum application.1

“Remain in Mexico”

The Trump administration also implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols aka “Remain in Mexico” program in 2019. This new method of denying entry to the U.S. extends to those claiming asylum at the port of entry. While they are allowed to file their asylum claim, they are not allowed to wait in the U.S. for their claim to be heard. Instead they are turned back to wait in Mexico until their court date.

The problem with this is that living in Mexico makes it much harder to make court appearances or meet with an attorney. It is also very dangerous, considering the locations near the border where these asylum seekers are waiting. Many asylum seekers are waiting in Tamaulipas, which has a Level 4 Travel Advisory from the State Department. The State Department has issued a travel advisory, stating that Americans should not travel there due to crime and kidnapping.2 The international watch group Human Rights First reported that there have been over 1,100 documented violent crimes against migrants in Mexico since the beginning of MPP.3

Detention Centers

The stated reasoning for detaining asylum seekers is to ensure that they don’t miss their court dates. However, historic rates of court appearance for asylum cases have been very high. Between 2013 and 2017, 92% of asylum seekers appeared in ALL required court proceedings.4 In 2018, asylum seekers had a 98.5% attendance rate for their hearings.4

A family case management strategy was briefly implemented in 2016. This program produced a 99% compliance rate with ICE appointments and court hearings without detention. The Trump administration closed it in 2017.5 The reason given for the closure was that it was too expensive in comparison to other programs at $36 a day per family.5 Meanwhile, family detention costs $342.73 per day.6

The average daily number of immigrants in detention has been increasing over the last couple of decades. There are many reasons for this, but here are some key points to know:

  • In FY 2017, the average number of detainees per day was 50,1657, compared to 6,785 in 1994.5
  • In 2016, private corporations owned 65% of the detention facilities. This is compared to 10% federally owned facilities and 25% other public facilities such as county jails.5
  • The 2020 DHS Budget allocates funding for an average daily population of 54,000 with specific allocations of 2,500 beds for family detention.8

What about the children?

We all saw the headlines a couple of years ago about family separation and inhumane conditions in detention centers. Just this week, ProPublica & Texas Tribune published a horrifying report about the lack of transparency and even illegal treatment of children in Border Patrol custody. How did our system come to this?

Part of the problem is that most detention centers are inappropriate for families. They were built in a time when the immigration enforcement system mainly dealt with adult men, and many are run by the same companies who also own for-profit prions.9 The immigration enforcement system was not designed to deal with children and families.

Another tragic facet of our current immigration system is the lack of legal counsel. Unlike our criminal courts, immigrants do not have the right to a court-ordered attorney. Therefore, there are times when children as young as 3 years old appear in front of the judge alone to provide their own asylum defense.10 According to the latest data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), there are twice as many unrepresented children appearing in immigration court in Texas than there are children with attorneys.11 As a former Court Appointed Special Advocate for children, this is simply horrifying to me.

Longstanding issues

There are some who question the validity of reports like this and see them as political attacks on President Trump. But the truth is that these are not completely new issues. It is true that the Trump administration has aggressively pushed hard-line policies on immigration. But our immigration system has been flawed for a long time and continues to grow worse.

I believe that the public outcry around family separations brought issues to the broader public eye that were previously receiving far less attention. Immigration advocates have been raising these concerns for a very long time.

What can we do?

The situation at the border is a mess that has been decades in the making. Fixing the problem feels impossible and overwhelming, but there are things we can do to help.

One of the first things we need to do as a society is to stop plugging our ears at the cries of those in need. Our law enforcement and border patrol should treat every human being with dignity. Those seeking asylum have a legal right to do so, and that right should be upheld. Not every person who applies for asylum will win their case. But they should certainly be treated with compassion and should have their cases heard.

Organizations to follow for information:

National Immigration Forum

Women of Welcome

We Welcome Refugees

Kids in Need of Defense

Things to Watch:

TEDTalk – Melanie Nezer: The fundamental right to seek asylum

TEDTalk – Erika Pinheiro: What’s really happening at the US-Mexico border – and how we can do better

Women of Welcome: What’s Happening with Kids at the Border?

Watch the full conversation between Women of Welcome’s Briana Stensrud & KIND’s Jen Podkul.
Organizations that help:

There are many organizations doing legal and relief work at the border:

Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) and The Young Center provide legal aid to children at the border so they do not have to go to court alone.

RAICES is an advocacy group that fights for the human rights of immigrants.

Sidewalk School provides a school for the kids living in tent camps.

Preemptive Love and The Immigration Coalition work at the migrant camps to provide water, hygiene products, tents, and other relief items.