The U.S. has surpassed Germany as the world’s top recipient of asylum applications, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The number of new asylum applications in Germany fell from 722,400 in 2016 to 198,300 in 2017, a precipitous decline of 73 percent.
Conversely, asylum applications in the U.S. soared over the same time period. There were 331,700 new asylum applications in the U.S. in 2017, a 27 percent increase over the 262,000 the year before.
It was the first time since 2012 that the U.S. had more asylum claims than any other country in the world, according to the U.N report, “Global Trends in Forced Displacement 2017.”
The figures come amid a contentious debate in the U.S. about how to handle an increasingly large wave of asylum seekers from Central American countries, many of whom have crossed the southwest border illegally. The Trump administration in April imposed a “zero tolerance” policy for unlawful entry, meaning the government will criminally prosecute as many border jumpers as possible, without exception for those who are traveling with children.
The policy has caused a spike in the number of migrant children separated from their parents at the border, drawing outrage from Democratic politicians, immigration activists and some religious leaders. Many Republican lawmakers have objected as well, and are scrambling to craft legislation that would require the government to keep parents and children together in civil immigration detention.
Most of the illegal immigrants being prosecuted under the new policy are from the “Northern Triangle” countries of Central America — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. As was the case during the Obama administration, migrants from those countries were responsible for a significant portion of new asylum claims in 2017, according to the U.N. report.
Salvadorans made up the largest nationality of asylum applicants with 49,500 claims, followed by Guatemalans with 35,300 claims and Hondurans with 28,800 claims. All told, those three countries were responsible for 43 percent of all U.S. asylum claims, which reached levels not seen since the 1980s, the U.N. said.
Immigration activists say the migrants are legitimate asylum seekers fleeing rampant domestic abuse and gang violence in their home countries. But Trump administration officials contend asylum law is ripe for exploitation by migrants with bogus claims or who see asylum as a way to stay in the U.S. while their cases are deposed in immigration court, a process that can take years.
Closing what the administration calls a “loophole” in asylum law, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled June 18 that fear of domestic abuse or gang violence alone are not enough to qualify for asylum. Sessions’ order requires asylum applicants to prove their home governments “condoned the private actions or demonstrated an inability to protect the victims,” a bar that will be very difficult for most Central American asylum seekers to meet.
Worldwide, there were about 3.1 million people with pending asylum applications at the end of 2017, according to the U.N. report. They were part of a much larger group of 68.5 million forcibly displaced people, a designation that includes refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons.
The U.S. had 642,700 pending asylum applications at the end of 2017, more than any other country by a wide margin, the U.N. said. Germany, the country with the second most claims outstanding, had 429,300.
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