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For asylum seekers, a fickle system

Amid the national debate over immigration reform, asylum has been largely overlooked.

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Three grueling weeks after they cast off from Haiti – subsisting on toothpaste and saltwater, they said, once the food ran out – just over 100 men, women, and children ran their rickety boat aground off Hallandale Beach, Fla., just north of Miami.

As the weakened Haitians waded or tried to swim toward land – one man died just yards from shore – they were helped by local firemen and others then taken to a county detention facility.

That was March 28. Three months later, they're still in detention, seeking asylum in the United States, prompting community demonstrations, the involvement of a local US congressman, and even a hunger strike.

Amid the contentious national debate over immigration reform, asylum has been largely overlooked. But like the immigration system overall, critics say, the asylum process is difficult, broken, and unfair.

"The Haitian community is very frustrated and angry," says Marleine Bastien of the Miami-based Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition. "There's such discrepancy.... People feel even if they make a good-faith effort, their chances are minimal in getting asylum."

The statistics explain some of the frustration.

Unlike refugee status, a designation generally pursued by people who want to come to the United States, asylum is for individuals without authorization already in the US or at a port of entry. And their numbers are dropping – despite the recent surge in immigrants.

Since 2001, the annual number of asylum applicants has dropped by a third to a half, depending on the category. The number of people granted asylum has also fallen by a third: from a record 38,641 in 2001 to 25,257 in 2005, the last year for which complete data are available.

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