The Senate version of the immigration bill, which passed out of the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday night, does away with a one-year application filing deadline that Congress enacted in the 1990s to reduce fraud and that advocates say has prevented many legitimate asylum seekers from applying to the program.
But it's not clear what the House will do, and the April revelation that the two brothers accused of carrying out the deadly Boston bombings arrived in the U.S. through the asylum system has concerned some lawmakers in Congress.
"Our commitment to helping people persecuted around the world is never going to waiver, however we have to be vigilant," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the committee working the immigration bill. "The bill would make it easier to those who wish to do us harm to exploit the system."
Grassley has raised concerns about the provision to eliminate the one-year requirement and another that allows for those whose cases were unsuccessful because they didn't comply with the one-year bar to reapply. But on Monday, his amendment was defeated in a committee vote. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said that nothing in the bill would weaken asylum procedures.
The Boston bombings did prompt some action that was approved by the Senate panel. On Monday, the panel voted to strip asylum or refugee status from individuals who return to the country they fled, unless they can show a good reason for doing so.
Authorities have said the elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had visited Dagestan, a Caspian Sea province that has become the center of a simmering Islamic insurgency in southern Russia, for six months.
The asylum system is designed for people who are persecuted or may be persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or are members of an oppressed social group. Asylum can be requested by someone who is already in the U.S., whether they entered legally or illegally. Claims can also be opened at a port of entry at the time of arrival.
In 2001, more than 39,000 people were given asylum, according to figures from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In 2012, that number dropped to around 25,000. In 1992, nearly 104,000 people applied to the program. By 2012, it dropped to about 42,000.
Before 1995, an asylum seeker was automatically given a work permit. Because they could then work legally as their case moved through the system, perhaps over many years, the program invited frivolous claims, said Doris Meissner, the Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner at the time.
Meissner, who led the reforms, said two high-profile cases - the 1993 shooting near the Central Intelligence headquarters by a Pakistan-born immigrant and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York - also brought attention to the asylum program's security measures.
"It was a major imperative to address this misuse of the asylum system," Meissner said. "The reforms in 1994 corrected those abuses ... As a result the percentage of cases that resulted in approval went up. But overall number of cases began to recede."
Congress, however, continued to make changes after the reforms Meissner implemented. In 1996, lawmakers created the one-year deadline to apply for asylum after first arriving. Advocates argue the one-year buffer does not provide enough time for many foreigners seeking to stay in the U.S., citing language and cultural barriers as reasons people miss their asylum claim deadlines.
It also shifted asylum cases to backlogged immigration courts, instead of an asylum office. A 2010 report published by the William and Mary Law Review journal concluded that the deadline may have caused 15,000 asylum cases to be rejected between 1998 and 2009.
The Senate version also hands asylum officers increased authority to adjudicate claims as an attempt to address backlog of cases in immigration courts.
Security measures include checking an asylum seeker's identity with Homeland Security and other federal databases; running their fingerprints and names through FBI databases; and vetting documents for their authenticity against a library of foreign travel and identity documents.
Meissner said the system was the first to pioneer biometrics and other security methods in the 1990s - now the norm with federal agencies.
"The U.S. asylum program in many ways sets an example for the rest of the world, but it has a number of flaws that need to be addressed," said Eleanor Acer of the advocacy group Human Rights First.