News reports say that Trump administration is limiting the number of asylum seeking immigrants to 20 per day in a process called metering.

What I don't understand is why this is such a low number, considering that it creates a huge backup of those seeking to legally migrate. The consequence of those huge backups is that those seeking to legally enter inevitably consider entering illegally.

To put this in context (for me personally), my grandmother immigrated to the US in 1905 through one of the several ports of entry (in her case, Ellis Island). She was inspected and interrogated to determine if she qualified for admittance in accordance with the laws. During 1905 to 1914 Immigration officials reviewed about 5,000 immigrants per day during peak times at Ellis Island. In fact it is reported that Immigration officials processed over 11,000 persons on April 17 1907 at Ellis Island alone.

So why is the administration unable to process many many more than 20 per day?

BTW, I like to imagine that my grandmother's admission to the US helped, in some small way,to make America great.

  • Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question.
    – Philipp
    Feb 16, 2019 at 13:50

2 Answers 2


One reason is because you are comparing apples and oranges.

  • Immigrants to Ellis Island were not applying for asylum.

    The whole concept dates to after WW2, while the formal implementation is based on U.S. Refugee Act of 1980.

    It takes longer to process asylum application - independent of Trump or not - than a regular visa. You need to verify that a person applying actually fits the asylum requirements, that is that they fear of future persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

    As per USCIS rules:

    For asylum applications filed on or after April 1, 1997, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) states that the initial interview should take place within 45 days after the date the application is filed. A decision should be made on the asylum application within 180 days after the date the application is filed, unless there are exceptional circumstances. See INA section 208(d)(5).

  • 20 people per day is merely one point of entry, and is basically from the "lies, big lies and statistics" propaganda department when you compare it to Ellis Island.

    Total asylum cases heard in USA are about 20,000-30,000 a year, consistently, from 2001 to 2017 (2018 was a big spike). For comparison, Ellis Island was millions a year.

    Source: https://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/539/

  • In 2018, the total # of Asylum applications approved actually rose compared to 2017 and 2016, from 10K to 15K (same source as above).

    The rate of rejection rose as well, but the complaint is about how few asylum cases are being processed, not rejection rate).

Another reason is that there are actual limitations on how many can be processed. The "metering" approach, while more widespread under Trump, was actually started under Obama and was due to sharp increase in applicants and constrained capacity

Even a sharply-pro-immigration Vox article linked from the question admits that:

The clearest constraints are the holding cells available for asylum seekers, and the officers available to process them. San Ysidro theoretically has space for 300 asylum seekers, but that’s reduced whenever people have to be segregated due to disease or safety concerns (like LGBT asylum seekers). On a good day, CBP can allow 100 people in; these days it’s more like 40-60.

But detention space is not the only problem. An asylum officer needs to conduct a screening interview for any asylum seeker before she can be released or deported; having to screen every asylum seeker as soon as she arrives at the port of entry requires a lot more asylum officers than are currently available. (The government may be working to fix this; before Thanksgiving, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which manages asylum officers, put out a request for officers to volunteer to go to San Ysidro.)

Hiring more people to process asylum seekers doesn’t solve the problem on its own either — because it doesn’t answer the question of where those people will be kept.

  • "Immigrants to Ellis Island were not applying for asylum" - however arrivals did not arrive with any "papers" beyond a steamer ticket , so there was no distinction between persons as to those seeking work versus seeking refuge.
    – BobE
    Feb 16, 2019 at 15:00
  • 2
    @BobE indeed, anyone who was immigrating would have been seeking work regardless of whether they were fleeing for reasons of safety or simply of opportunity. And none of them would have been seeking refuge in the sense of formal legal protection by the US government, since that did not yet exist in those days, as noted in this answer. It's also not clear to me that everyone processed at Ellis Island (before the 1920s) was an immigrant in the sense that excludes temporary visitors.
    – phoog
    Feb 17, 2019 at 5:49

The consequence of those huge backups is that those seeking to legally enter inevitably consider entering illegally.

This is untrue. That is only a consequence of the current system. People crossing the border illegally get the same asylum potential as non-crossers. We can posit a different system where people who illegally cross have to show a higher claim of immediate danger. If they can't display immediate danger (which necessarily would have to be in Mexico, which is where they would have been before crossing), then their request is rejected and they are returned to Mexico. They can then make an asylum request to Mexico.

This result is not inevitable. It is a feature of the system as it currently is.

Similarly, if asylum requests were evaluated by the same people as evaluate refugee claims, there would be less incentive to come to the border at all. They could just file a refugee claim at the United States consulate in Mexico.

An Ellis Island comparison also ignores that people at Ellis Island had demonstrated a certain minimum amount of wealth. I.e. they had been able to fund a trip across the ocean, which was quite expensive at the time, more than a year's income for the average person. Then those people were able to build wealth again with the same methods as they used the first time.

It is still possible to display wealth and get a visa. The limit is higher in nominal terms and may be higher in real terms. But it is still available.

Another way to get to the US that worked prior to that was a long term employment contract. That's still a way to get a visa.

One of the frustrations of certain people is that undocumented immigrants are taking spots that could be given to people who already have employment offers. We thus sharply limit competition with upper middle class positions but not the uneducated. This exacerbates income inequality in the US, by artificially increasing upper incomes and reducing opportunities among those with lower incomes.

  • because it is personal- I will address your contention that Ellis Island arrivals demonstrated "certain wealth". My grandmother arrived with 3 dollars and no contract for labor. Her ticket (steerage) was purchased by pooling the resources of her nine brothers. As she was 16 at the time, she had no history of wealth to rebuild. Checking the Ellis Island records just for the page that she is listed, the question asked was if the arrival had less than 50 dollars. Of the 14 listed only one had at 50 dollars or more, all the others had between 3 and 21 dollars. Steerage ticket cost 30$
    – BobE
    Feb 17, 2019 at 20:38
  • 1
    Your other construct defies logic and human nature. If there are 3000 people waiting at the "gate" to see immigration officers, but the immigration officers will only interview (say) 20 per day, the logically expected result will be some of those 3000 will look for other avenues to enter. That is why I said "inevitably consider entering illegally."
    – BobE
    Feb 17, 2019 at 20:46
  • Additional information: According to the DHA Inspector General: "For instance, while the Government encouraged all asylum seekers to come to ports of entry to make their asylum claims, CBP managed the flow of people who could enter at those ports of entry through metering, which may have led to additional illegal border crossings." [ oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2018-10/… ]
    – BobE
    Feb 21, 2019 at 3:30
  • But that still doesn't address my point: that they wouldn't attempt illegal border crossings if we didn't treat asylum requests by illegal border crossers as if they had made the same asylum request at a point of entry.
    – Brythan
    Feb 21, 2019 at 18:46
  • The "system as it currently is" is the result of the US having signed and ratified the 1967 protocol to the refugee convention. Imposing penalties on refugees who have entered the country unlawfully would require abrogating the convention.
    – phoog
    Apr 16, 2019 at 23:43

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