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Republicans want to limit migrants entering the U.S. Will it affect asylum-seekers?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's a new year, but a familiar fight is returning to Washington. The White House will resume talks with congressional Republicans on funding Ukraine's war effort and there are signs that the White House may need to give up some political ground to get it, specifically on immigration. GOP lawmakers are proposing a tougher standard for asylum claims. Earlier, our co-host A Martínez spoke to Kennji Kizuka about this. He is the director of asylum policy for the International Rescue Committee. Kizuka started by explaining what happens under the current process.

KENNJI KIZUKA: Once an asylum seeker has told an officer they want to seek asylum, the officer can choose to do a couple of things. They could let that person go on to immigration court and present their asylum claim to a judge or they might put them in what's called expedited removal, which is a kind of fast-track deportation. And if they are placed in that fast-track deportation, they're going to have to speak to an asylum officer to show that they have a strong chance that they're eligible for asylum in order to stay in the country and to be able to continue the asylum process.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: What qualifies them to think that they can qualify for asylum?

KIZUKA: So asylum isn't for everyone. It doesn't apply to every kind of issue that might push someone to leave their country. It's a form of protection for people who fear persecution based on their race, their religion, their ethnicity, because of their political opinions or because they're part of a group that's being persecuted, like based on their sexual orientation or gender.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So now Senate Republicans are trying to change the standard, and they want asylum requests to go from a significant possibility of persecution to more likely than not. What's the difference between those two?

KIZUKA: So the current standard is called credible fear. And that means that a person has a significant possibility or a good chance to show that if they went to immigration court they would be able to prove that they were eligible for asylum. The proposals that we're seeing in Congress would raise that standard and essentially require people to prove their entire asylum case in the initial screening interview. So the process of these initial screenings that were meant to ensure that people are not returned to danger would, in essence, flip and become the whole game, that you have to show and prove your whole case in that initial screening instead of it being a gateway to the rest of the process.

MARTÍNEZ: To have to prove everything - as you said, the whole game - right there on the spot, it seems like that's an almost impossible standard to meet.

KIZUKA: For many people, the screening interview is already really difficult. You're sitting in a little booth in a detention center, talking to an officer on the other side of the country over the phone. There's an interpreter on the phone. You're not seeing anyone face to face to be able to explain what happened to you, and you're talking about the worst things that ever happened to you in your life - having to share that you were raped or tortured, having to talk about parts of your identity that were causing you to be persecuted, that you were practicing your faith in secret or that you were being persecuted because of your sexual orientation. And so these interviews were already so high stakes and so emotionally difficult for people. Imagine, on top of that, knowing that now, in this interview, you basically have to prove your whole case right there, right on the spot, as soon as you arrive. The kind of pressure that puts on someone who's already been through so much is really hard to imagine.

MARTÍNEZ: Should it be a higher standard than what's already in place to be granted asylum to the United States?

KIZUKA: The issue that Congress is really grappling with here is that they want to see fewer people arrive at the Southern border, and that's not an issue about the asylum standard. The thought that that changing this credible fear standard would see fewer people arrive to the United States is a mistake. It's not going to happen. When people's lives are on the line, they're going to flee, and they're going to seek any opportunity that might save themselves and their family. And so these changes we're seeing proposed to the asylum standard aren't going to address the humanitarian issues we're seeing at the border but they will result in people who have genuine fears of persecution being returned to the place where they're in danger.

MARTÍNEZ: Kennji Kizuka with the International Rescue Committee. Kennji, thank you very much for explaining all this.

KIZUKA: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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