Obstacles and backlogs: Asylum office delays continue to cause damage

By Cora Wright, Legal Practitioner, Refugee Protection and Refugee Representation

Nony (a pseudonym) has been waiting for an interview with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Office of Asylum for almost six years. In 2016, Nony fled Yemen, after being nearly killed because of her sexual orientation. She applied for asylum on her own in January 2017 and has been waiting ever since. Pro bono lawyers through Human Rights First recently took on his case to try to push for a speedier resolution.

At first, Nony had a hard time adapting: “You’re thinking about how to improve your English, how to deal with a new culture, how to understand all the rules in the United States, because you don’t want to make mistakes and have them evict, and you reflect on your life before, if you made any mistakes that they might evict you for, and that was just the beginning. Now she’s learned English, understood the culture, and made New Jersey a home, but the anxiety that she might be forced to return to where she fled hasn’t gone away and made only get worse.

Finally, getting an interview with the asylum office is both Nony’s dream and a potential nightmare. She is desperate to move on, gain permanent status, and stop living in a terrible limbo that has been devastating to her mental health. But she has heard horror stories of others fleeing for their lives, rejected during their interview with the asylum office after waiting years, paying their taxes and starting to carve out a new life for themselves in the States. -United. “There is so much pressure and anxiety building up – it was already there since I fled my home country – but it keeps building up. I was 31 when I arrived here. Soon I will be 40 years old. I wish they would just say yes or no to me, instead of making me spend so many years in one country. I feel this is my country, my home. I gave him my loyalty; I gave him years of my life. It is not fair.”

The backlog of asylum applications grew under the Obama administration and hit an all-time high under the Trump administration as harsh border policies, lack of sufficient staff in the Asylum Division, and security checks faulty exacerbated the problem. In 2021, the Biden administration inherited a disheartening backlog of 394,000 case. In March 2022, this now represents more than 470,000 pending requests. Backlog continues to grow with COVID-19 precautions limiting the number of interviews that can be completed and Asylum Division resources diverted to fear screenings for court-ordered re-enforcement of asylum policy Trump era Remain in Mexico as well as continued use of accelerated withdrawal.

When Human Rights First released the report “Deferred protection“April 2021 USCIS asylum backlog, our clients with applications stuck in the asylum office backlog have been waiting for more than four years on average for an interview. Now that wait has grown to over six years. The desperation of those waiting for interviews continues to mount. As Nony noted, “…coming to America, I thought was like going to find someone to give you a big hug and make you feel safe. It was my dream. But America won’t give you a huge hug and make you feel safe.They will give you frustration, anxiety and an unhealthy life full of stress.

The legal vacuum of the backlog interferes with the ability of asylum seekers to continue their education, find good jobs and makes them vulnerable to exploitation.

In 2021, Nony started a master’s program in human rights – a dream she could not pursue in her country because her family had forbidden her to study. “God created me to have a good job and help people,” she said. But Nony had to pay for each lesson with a credit card because her lack of permanent immigration status as an asylum seeker means she is not eligible for scholarships. She had to interrupt her studies to save up to pay for more lessons. Nony paid for her master’s degree with a series of jobs in grocery stores, retail businesses and as a receptionist. Some have exploited it. A boss paid her $200 for seven full days of work. Nony now has a better job in a bank, but she had to push to get hired. The bank didn’t want to hire anyone who might have to leave the country.

Isaac (a pseudonym), a refugee from Egypt represented by Human Rights First, was also unable to participate in educational opportunities while stuck in the asylum backlog for five years. He was unable to enroll in any of the master’s degree programs in journalism to which he had been accepted because his lack of permanent status made him ineligible for student loans. Fortunately, Isaac was recently granted asylum. But he must retake (and pay again) standardized tests to apply again to the same schools. “The granting of asylum gave me hope. For years, I had no hope for these problems, to improve my English, my fluency, to see my mother again, even marriage. Now I feel like I have options again…but it feels like I lost five years.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has Many times recognized backlogs as “perhaps the biggest problem facing USCIS and its stakeholders.” In November 2021, 40 members of Congress wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and USCIS Director Ur Jaddou expressing concern about the backlog of affirmative asylum applications, including the lengthy wait times that may be traumatic for asylum seekers in the United States and the harm suffered by separated family members who remain at risk in their home countries.

For Nony, the seemingly endless wait has been very mentally taxing. Twice she came close to suicide. Nony’s mother, who also fled after helping Nony escape, now lives in an assisted care facility in another country. Without asylum, Nony cannot visit her mother, who is too ill to go to the United States. Nony said she felt she “will die of guilt if my mother dies before I can see her again”.

In fiscal year 2022, USCIS received $275 million in additional congressional funding to reduce the backlog of affirmative asylum. The 2023 fiscal year proposed by President Biden budget requested $765 million from USCIS to efficiently process the growing number of asylum claims and improve refugee processing. To take advantage of this expanded budget support, USCIS should ensure that new asylum officers are dedicated to resolving backlogs, prioritizing longest pending applications; initiate a procedure allowing asylum seekers stuck in the backlog to apply for rapid interviews; and adopt other recommendations make the asylum procedure faster and less traumatic.

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