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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks on the U.S. system for asylum-seekers at the Executive Office for Immigration Review in Falls Church, Virginia, U.S. October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


By Sarah N. Lynch

FALLS CHURCH, Va., (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday the policies that allow immigrants to seek asylum in the United States were broken and subject to "rampant abuse and fraud."

In a speech at the department's Executive Office For Immigration Review, Sessions said too many immigrants were taking advantage of the rules, and urged Congress to pass legislation that could make it harder for asylum petitions to be granted.

Overhauling the U.S. asylum system was on a list of immigration proposals the White House sent Congress over the weekend that President Donald Trump wants in exchange for a legislative fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme. Most of the principles, including a crackdown on the influx of Central American unaccompanied minors, are likely to be non-starters for Democrats.

Sessions did not announce any specific policy shifts in his speech but urged Congress to act.

"Congress must pass the legislative priorities President Trump announced this week, which included significant asylum reform, swift border returns, and enhanced interior enforcement," he said.

He said there were "loopholes" in the law that allow immigrants, whom federal officials determine have a "credible fear" of returning to their home countries, to be released pending a hearing before a judge.

He also advocated for imposing and enforcing penalties for "baseless" asylum applications, elevating the threshold standard of proof in credible fear interviews, and expanding the ability to return asylum seekers to safe third countries.

After they pass their credible fear review, many people simply disappear and never show up at their immigration hearings, Sessions said.

He blamed the Obama administration for a policy shift in 2009 that allowed them to be released from custody, and said he believed many peoples' credible fear claims were simply a "ruse to enter the country illegally."

Human Rights First, a group that provides pro bono legal assistance to refugees, said the attorney general's comments mischaracterised asylum seekers as "threats and frauds."

"These individuals are not criminals," said senior director Eleanor Acer in a statement, "they are mothers, teenagers, and children desperate to escape violence and persecution."

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Andrew Hay)

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