PHOENIX -- Requests for asylum in the United States along the Southwest border with Mexico have more than doubled over the last three years as immigrants seek legal entry into the country by claiming fear of persecution back home, according to figures the federal government released Friday.
The so-called credible fear claims at the border reached 14,610 by the end of June with three more months to go in the fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported. That's compared with 6,824 such claims for the entire 2011 fiscal year. DHS notes, however, that those numbers are a tiny portion of the millions of travelers who legally cross the border each year.
The numbers represent what's known as "defensive" applications where foreigners who are outside the U.S. arrive at ports of entry seeking asylum. They do not include numbers of additional "affirmative" asylum requests filed during the same time period by immigrants who are already in the U.S. without permanent legal status. The department said those figures were not available.
The figures were released Friday, in part, to dispute information first reported by Fox News that large numbers of Mexican citizens have been showing up at San Diego ports of entry recently to seek asylum. DHS officials said the reports have been overstated, calling the increase in asylum requests at those ports "modest."
Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 15, the agency said, an average of 30 people per day have arrived at San Diego ports asking for asylum, compared with roughly 170,000 travelers who cross the border there legally each day.
Critics of current immigration reform efforts in Washington have claimed would-be immigrants are using the credible fear claim seeking asylum as a loophole to gain legal entry into the U.S., citing fear of drug cartel violence in Mexico. Immigration experts say the concerns are overstated.
The issue gained new attention last month after a group of nine immigration rights activists presented themselves at the Arizona border in Mexico seeking asylum. After spending several weeks in detention, they have since been released into the U.S. pending hearings before an immigration judge who will make a final decision on whether to grant their requests.
DHS is quick to point out that such requests from Mexican citizens are rarely granted, noting that on average, 91 percent are denied.
While it's unclear what will happen with the nine activists' cases, some say their release into the U.S., even if only temporarily, sets a dangerous precedent and could overwhelm ports of entry across the border. All of this is occurring while the White House is pressuring a reluctant GOP-led House to pass a major immigration reform bill.
"Frankly, I don't think the House should pass any bill until the administration shows its willingness to confront and fix this problem," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a vocal opponent of the current legislation pending in Congress.
"This is a direct threat to the orderly administration of our immigration law," Sessions added, predicting that even the perception of easy entry into the U.S. by claiming asylum could create havoc on the border as thousands more try the same tactic.
DHS officials say the numbers aren't showing a marked increase in such asylum requests from Mexican citizens, as critics fear, but the agency couldn't provide more detailed figures.
"Border activity levels are cyclical in nature. Claims of credible fear along the Southwest border vary month to month and year to year," DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard said. "Credible fear determinations are dictated by long-standing statute, not an issuance of discretion."
In order to win asylum in the United States, an immigrant must to prove he or she is being persecuted because of race, religion, political view, nationality or membership in a particular social group. They also must prove that their government is either part of the persecution or unable or unwilling to protect them.
Immigration lawyers also point out that the bar is extremely high for being granted asylum in the U.S.
"Most people who get these credible fear interviews, even if they pass, it doesn't mean they're going to be released," said David Leopold, an Ohio immigration attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "You could be sitting in detention for months and months until you get your asylum hearing, and then you're denied and sent back."
Kathleen Campbell Walker, an El Paso, Texas-based immigration lawyer and also a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, calls the claims of a deluge of Mexican citizens rushing the border "alarmist."
However, she added, America is a nation of immigrants and shouldn't change its policy of allowing legitimate asylum seekers refuge in the country.
"We care. We're a humanitarian nation," Walker said. "That's just who we are."
Traditionally, Mexican citizens make up a small percentage of foreigners seeking asylum in the U.S. based on credible fear, while Chinese citizens have regularly filed the most requests dating back to at least 2008.
Asylum requests from Central Americans also have spiked in recent years, a move government officials attribute to reports of increased drug trafficking, violence and overall rising crime in the region.