WASHINGTON, DC, February 13, 2024 — Known for its long tradition of providing refuge, the U.S. humanitarian protection system is under major strain at a time of mass displacements globally, a backlog of more than 2 million asylum applications and record U.S.-Mexico border arrivals of migrants seeking asylum.

The Biden administration has imposed new restrictions to asylum while also using alternate pathways to provide temporary protection to hundreds of thousands of individuals, as part of a strategy to incentivize legal arrivals and disincentivize unauthorized border crossings. And it has indicated new openness to significantly raising the threshold for making an asylum claim as part of bipartisan Senate negotiations over border legislation.

Amid significant uncertainty whether a gridlocked Congress will update decades-old immigration laws that are no longer fit for purpose, a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report examines the current state of the U.S. humanitarian protection system.

The report, Outmatched: The U.S. Asylum System Faces Record Demands, focuses in particular on the system modernization and other recent changes the Biden administration has made in asylum processing and temporary protections, as well as the challenges and lessons the U.S. experience may offer for asylum systems in other countries.

By most measures, the U.S. asylum system is not meeting its objectives of granting protection in a timely manner to asylum seekers who are eligible, while returning those deemed ineligible to their countries of origin. A functioning asylum system is necessary to improve border control.

Without greater efficiencies and resources for adjudicating asylum cases and expanded lawful pathways to meet growing protection needs, the agencies that process asylum cases—the nation’s immigration courts and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum corps—will become increasingly overwhelmed and individuals in need of protection will not receive it in a timely manner, the report notes.

The U.S. immigration courts, an administrative arm of the Justice Department, and USCIS received record numbers of asylum applications in fiscal year 2023: 431,000 affirmative asylum applications at USCIS for the year and 316,000 defensive applications in the immigration courts as of the third quarter. By comparison, a decade earlier, the U.S. government received 44,000 affirmative asylum applications and 24,000 defensive ones.

The report examines the changing trends in migration flows at the U.S.-Mexico border since 2014; the U.S. and international legal framework governing asylum; recent nationality-based immigration parole programs such as for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans; the Safe Mobility Offices in Latin America that aim to process protection claims well away from the U.S. border; and U.S. capacity, which depends significantly on Mexican cooperation, to return migrants found ineligible to remain.

“The government’s efforts are insufficient to meet the scale of the challenge,” writes Kathleen Bush-Joseph, an MPI policy analyst. “Looking ahead, only Congress can update U.S. immigration laws and more lastingly fortify steps that the executive branch has made, including providing immigration pathways apart from applying for asylum.”

The report is one of five country case studies and a synthesis report in a comparative asylum project developed by the Clingendael Institute that was published today.

Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/outmatched-us-asylum-system.

Last month, MPI released a pair of reports examining conditions and policies at the U.S.-Mexico border, one focused on the contemporary enforcement and policy landscape and migration trends; the other a historical look at the border control system.

Click for all of MPI’s work on border security and asylum.

The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.