Stand up for the facts!

Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.

More Info

I would like to contribute

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies to the House Intelligence Committee task force on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 21, 2017. (AP) Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies to the House Intelligence Committee task force on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 21, 2017. (AP)

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies to the House Intelligence Committee task force on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 21, 2017. (AP)

Maria Ramirez Uribe
By Maria Ramirez Uribe December 6, 2022

Jeh Johnson wrong that asylum cases’ approval is ‘only about 20%’

If Your Time is short

  • Because of a backlog in immigration cases, nearly 40% of all asylum cases filed in the past 22 years are still pending. 

  • Since 2000, immigration judges have approved 30% of asylum applications filed by  immigrants as a defense against deportation. In fiscal year 2022, immigration judges approved about 39% of such applications.

  • Jeh Johnson told PolitiFact he misspoke. “The number is closer to 30% or higher,” he said.

A federal judge ruled that the Biden administration in late December must end a public health policy that has prevented many immigrants from requesting asylum at the southwest border. The policy, Title 42, was instituted by the Trump administration at the pandemic’s start to restrict immigration and mitigate COVID-19’s spread in the United States.

CBS’ Margaret Brennan in a Nov. 27 interview asked former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson what happens after the policy ends. Johnson said the U.S. needed to evaluate "the credible fear standard" and develop a system that "more expeditiously" handles asylum claims. 

"It takes six years right now to process an asylum claim once someone has entered this country. And one of the problems is that the bar to qualify initially and establish a case of credible fear is relatively low, something like 70% of migrants qualify who seek it," Johnson said. "And the ultimate qualification for asylum, the percentage there, is only about 20%, and it's six years in between."

Under immigration law, immigration officials interview asylum seekers to determine whether they have a credible fear of returning to their home country. If migrants convince authorities that they do have a credible fear, they are let into the country —  some people are kept in detention and others are released from immigration custody. They then can apply for asylum and go through the court proceedings.

We found that the likelihood of establishing credible fear is higher than that of actually obtaining asylum, but the specific numbers Johnson cites are off.

People may apply for asylum as a defense against deportation. People who are already in the country and not in removal proceedings may also apply for asylum, regardless of their immigration status or how they arrived in the country. 

These cases undergo multiple hearings before they’re resolved, and a backlog of immigration cases means it can take years for people to be granted or denied asylum. 

In the past 22 years, around 1.9 million asylum cases have been filed and about 40% are still pending. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University estimates that wait times for hearings average about four and a half years. 

Asylum has been granted in about 40% of the nearly 700,000 asylum cases that have been decided since 2000. Immigration judges in that time frame approved about 30% of the applications, or about 420,000 cases, filed by people in deportation proceedings after arriving at the border or after being apprehended within the U.S. 

In fiscal year 2022, immigration judges decided 52,000 asylum cases; about 46% of people were granted asylum. The approval rate was closer to 39% for those who applied for asylum as a defense against deportation.

"I acknowledge that I misspoke. The number is closer to 30% or higher," Johnson told PolitiFact.

It’s important to note that just because people are not granted asylum does not mean they do not have a valid claim. Experts have previously told PolitiFact that cases can be denied because of procedural reasons, or because immigrants don’t have legal representation and aren’t able to effectively argue their case.

Our ruling

Speaking about immigrants who arrive at the southwest border and apply for asylum, Johnson said, "only about 20%" qualify for it. 

The approval rate is higher — about 30% since 2000, according to data tracked by Syracuse University. Of the 42,000 cases decided in 2022, immigration judges granted asylum in almost 39% of them. Johnson told PolitiFact that he misspoke. 

We rate this claim False. 

Our Sources

Email exchange, Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of Homeland Security, Nov. 28, 2022

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Semimonthly credible fear and reasonable fear receipts and decisions, Oct. 15, 2022

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Types of Asylum, accessed Dec. 1, 2022

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, Asylum Filings, accessed Dec. 1, 2022

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, A mounting asylum backlog and growing wait times, Dec. 22, 2021

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, Asylum Decisions, accessed Dec. 1, 2022

PolitiFact, Jeff Sessions' false claim that 80 percent of asylum applications are without merit, July 2, 2018

PolitiFact, Are the vast majority of asylum claims without merit?, May 17, 2019

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Maria Ramirez Uribe

Jeh Johnson wrong that asylum cases’ approval is ‘only about 20%’

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up