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On Asylum, “Catch and Release” is the Big Lie

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Asylum seekers don’t abscond, they show up

“Catch and release.” It has been invoked cynically and repeatedly by the right to justify a web of cruel policies aimed at gutting the nation’s asylum system and deterring asylum-seekers. It’s one of those catch-phrases popularized by the right and picked up by the mainstream media. 

And it’s all a big lie. 

The vast majority of those seeking asylum or other forms of relief in our immigration courts show up for their hearings. They don’t abscond, they show up.

Trump promised to end this bogeyman called “catch and release” as a candidate in 2016. In the last debate with Joe Biden in 2020, he said this

Catch and release is a disaster. A murderer would come in, a rapist would come in, a very bad person would come in — we would take their name, we have to release them into our country. And then you say they come back. Less than 1% of the people come back.

There is no immigration policy called “catch and release.” It’s a fishing term appropriated by nativists to demonize people who are simply seeking refuge in America. They hail from Central America, Haiti, Cameroon, Cuba, Venezuela and beyond. They present themselves at the border to apply for asylum. They come to America because they believe in the American promise. They believe America is a beacon of hope. They believe that once American officials hear their story, what they fled and why they fear for their lives if returned, they will be granted asylum and welcomed into America.

Not under Trump and Stephen Miller. They waged a relentless war on immigrants and refugees, and gutting America’s refugee and asylum system by executive fiat: Zero Tolerance; family separations; family detention; expanded detention in horrid conditions; Remain in Mexico; metering; Third-country agreements; dramatically narrowing asylum rules; politicizing immigration courts and judges; putting Border Patrol officers in charge of asylum screenings; invoking a 1944 health law to expel one and all; and much, much more.

The rationale for these cruel policies? To end “catch and release.” And it’s all a lie.

A new report from the American Immigration Council (AIC) finds the following: 

Do immigrants attend their immigration court hearings? This question is central to current debates about the immigration court system. Contrary to claims by the government that most immigrants fail to appear in immigration court, our analysis of data provided by the federal government reveals that 83% of all non detained immigrants with completed or pending removal cases from Fiscal Years (FY) 2008 through 2018 attended all of their court hearings. Among those who were represented by counsel during the same time period, 96% attended all of their court hearings. Moreover, we reveal that 15% of those who were ordered deported because they didn’t appear in court successfully reopened their cases and had their removal orders rescinded. This crucial finding suggests that many individuals who fail to appear in court wanted to attend their hearings but never received notice or faced hardship in getting to court.

Got that? 83% attend all hearings. When they can find lawyers to represent them (since there is no universal right to counsel in immigration proceedings), 96% attend all hearings. The small percentage who don’t show up? Mostly it’s because they couldn’t find a lawyer, didn’t receive the notice of the hearing, or both. When they realize they missed a court date, most move to reopen their case so they can pursue their claims in the immigration courts. They want resolution of their cases. They show up.

In other research, it’s been found that of asylum seekers who were part of cost-effective case management programs (that the Trump administration ended), 99% of applicants complied with court dates.

“Catch and release” is the Big Lie at the heart of the asylum debate.

The “catch and release” lie is now being re-upped by those same architects, enablers and defenders of the Trump cruelty and chaos to attack the Biden administration and for overt political reasons. Just a few days ago, Fox News recently ran this headline: Biden administration’s CBP revives ‘catch and release’ policy at border amid COVID concerns. Yes, former Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf was on to verify it. No, there is no Biden order to revive such a practice, just rogue Border Patrol agents and union officials feeding the narrative because they miss their man, Trump, and they don’t like Biden.

The following is a statement from Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

In the name of ending ‘catch and release,’ the Trump administration mounted a cruel and relentless campaign to deter asylum-seekers and deny access to due process. Based on these lies, they did incalculable damage to thousands of lives and created a moral stain on America’s self-description as a welcoming nation. 

But it’s all based on a falsehood. Asylum seekers attend court hearings and want to be law-abiding actors in an American system that is fair, legal and orderly. Their lives literally depend on their trust in the American legal system to adjudicate their cases fairly and without prejudice. 

We need to call out the lie underpinning the right wing’s claims. We need to build a fair, humane and functional system that gives refugees a fair chance to make their case. We need to catch and release the truth.

See below for examples of how the lie is deployed – then and now – and more details on the essential AIC report demolishing the lie of “catch and release”:

  • President Trump in a January 2019 speech (which he often repeated in official and campaign venues): “They go into our country, and then you announce, ‘These are the laws,’ then you say, ‘Come back in three years for your trial,’” Trump told a crowd in a January speech. “Tell me what percentage of people come back. Would you say 100 percent? No, you’re a little off. How about 2 percent? And those people you almost don’t want ’cause they cannot be very smart.”
  • Vice President Mike Pence in a June 2019 CNN interview: “What we want: To end the days where people believe they can come into the country, make a claim of asylum from oppression or deprivation or violence in Central America or elsewhere, and then be released into the country on their own recognizance only to vanish into the nation … Ninety percent of the people never show up for their hearing in the months ahead. … The overwhelming majority, plus-90 percent, don’t show up.”
  • Stephen Miller to Fox News, October 28, 2020: “The Biden plan would implement nationwide catch and release for every nationality … Within a week of that happening there would be a rush on the border on a global scale … His policies would incentivize child smuggling and child trafficking on an epic global global scale. It would reward some of the most evil criminal organizations in the world.”
  • Breitbart article from February 4, 2021: “Joe Biden’s ‘Catch and Release’ Policy Opens the Southern Border”
  • Fox News, February 5: “Biden administration’s softer, more welcoming approach will trigger a wave of migrants”: Fox News lede: “A perfect storm of events has the Biden administration’s Customs and Border Protection on its heels in parts of Texas, forcing the agency to begin releasing newly arrived illegal immigrants back into U.S. cities as part of a policy known as ‘catch and release.’ … It raises concerns the Biden administration’s softer, more welcoming approach will trigger a wave of migrants from Central America…”