"The system is being gamed, there's no doubt about it," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech last October. He was trying to get Congress to tighten the rules for asylum.
In the U.S., asylum is offered to people who have suffered persecution, or fear they will suffer persecution based on their race, nationality, religion, political opinions or membership in a particular social group. In many cases, people can legitimately apply for asylum in the U.S. after being victimized by gang crimes or domestic violence, if their home governments will not help them. However, the rules are strict and the definitions have been fiercely litigated over the years.
Sessions says that a recent spike and a large backlog in asylum applications are the result of false claims. There are around 600,000 cases waiting to be adjudicated -- more than three times the backlog in 2009.
The spike in applications comes largely from Central American women and children seeking asylum after fleeing gang violence in their home countries.
"As this system becomes overloaded with fake claims, it cannot deal effectively with just claims," Sessions said in his speech last year. He argued that it's necessary to close loopholes and clarify the law in order to limit asylum to those the law was meant to help.
Precisely what that means is not clear. Sessions has taken two steps to reform the system. First, he just vacated a ruling that most asylum seekers have the right to a hearing in front of a judge before their claims can be denied. Second, he initiated a review of whether people claiming to be victims of "private crimes" qualify for asylum. What he means by "private crimes" is also unclear.
Because the immigration courts are part of the Justice Department, Sessions has the power to overturn decisions by those courts as part of Justice Department policy.
How Sessions' decisions will affect that 600,000-case backlog is not yet known.
Critics of Sessions' moves claim that the asylum backlog is not the result of fraud. Rather, they say, a large number of people have been forced to flee Central America due to a "global situation" -- a substantial rise in gang-related activity that governments can't seem to control.