WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- The number of immigrants seeking asylum after entering the United States illegally nearly tripled in 2013 to the highest level in 20 years, a report said.
The report, issued Thursday by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, said the number of asylum-seekers granted temporary refuge rose from 13,931 to 36,026 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The increase in requests raised concerns that border jumpers and drug cartel members may be filing fraudulent claims as a way to slow their deportation, the Times said. The report did not indicate how many claims may have involved fraud.
Immigrants already in the United States who can demonstrate "credible fear" of being persecuted in their home country because of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion may be referred to an immigration court and granted temporary asylum, provided they pass a criminal background check. They must appear before an immigration judge at an assigned time, which can take a year or two to schedule.
If an asylum claim is denied, the applicant can be deported immediately.
"It appears to me that word has gotten out that a 'credible fear' claim might be a good way to get into the country," Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday on asylum abuse allegations.
Committee member Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., urged immigration officials to review the asylum claim process closely to ensure it doesn't miss those really needing protection from persecution.
"Let's make sure that if someone really fears death that America is a safe place for them," he said.
Ruth E. Wasem, an immigration policy specialist for the Congressional Research Service who analyzed the claim data for House panel, said there wasn't enough data to determine whether the jump in claims could be traced to fraud, the Times said.
"The increase alone does not signify an abuse of the claims," Wasem told the panel.
The rise in claims came mostly from people asking not to be deported to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as well as Mexico, India and Ecuador, Wasem said.