Graham introduces bill that would change asylum process

Legislation also calls for more judges

By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN
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Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, (R-SC)., speaks at a news conference proposing legislation to address the crisis at the southern border at the U.S. Capitol on May 15, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

(CNN) - Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced legislation Wednesday that would, in part, change the current asylum process in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants arriving at the southern border.

The legislation would change the system in three substantial ways: It would require migrants seeking asylum to apply at a consulate or embassy in their home country or in Mexico, instead of at the southern border; it would increase the amount of time that migrant children could stay in custody from 20 days to 100 days; and make it easier for officials to deport unaccompanied minors to Central America.

The measure also calls for 500 new immigration judges to chip away at the massive immigration court backlog.

Taken together, Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a press conference, "then, the incentives created by our laws will cease to exist." He added: "This humanitarian disaster will begin to repair itself."

The Trump administration has urged Congress to revisit the nation's immigration laws, arguing that loopholes have encouraged an increasing number of migrants to cross the border. But Democrats have already pushed back on some of the proposals floated by the administration, including aspects of the Graham bill, like holding migrant children in custody for a longer period of time.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, is expected to unveil the details of the White House immigration plan on Thursday, a source familiar with the plan told CNN.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner has been working behind the scenes to pull together a proposal that would overhaul the US immigration system, briefing Republican senators on the plan Tuesday. Graham said his bill addresses the "acute problem."

"What I've done is take out of the border security plan, the acute problem," Graham said. "A wall will not fix this. People are trying to be captured."

In a letter to lawmakers in March, former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said her most immediate request is for the authority to return unaccompanied children from Central America to their home countries if they "have no legal right to stay," similar to the way the department repatriates Mexican children.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan has echoed some of the same concerns, including the limited amount of time migrant children are allowed to remain in government custody.

"What -- what has happened is that 21 days is not an adequate time period for a full proceeding with due process, with access to counsel, with getting documents from Central America to be completed," he told lawmakers in late April, adding that "the notion that we want to detain children for a long period of time is just not accurate."

The issues raised by the administration stem from an uptick in migrants, many of whom are families and unaccompanied children from Northern Triangle countries, at the southern border. In April alone, the Border Patrol arrested 98,977 migrants for illegal entry, according to Customs and Border Protection data.

The increase in asylum claims has continued to bog down an already-overwhelmed immigration court system.

There's currently a backlog of more than 850,000 pending cases in the nation's immigration courts, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks immigration court data. Not all of those are asylum claims, but there's recently been an uptick in credible fear claims at the border, the first step in the asylum process.

Graham is no stranger to immigration reform, having worked on it with his colleagues in the past. But his legislation is one of many addressing immigration, a politically divisive issue. Attempts to change the US immigration system have struggled to garner enough consensus to pass Congress.

Graham, acknowledging the divisiveness, noted that he'd be open to changing his measure, saying that there would be a hearing "so people can test this proposition."

CNN's Jim Acosta contributed to this report.

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