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For the last few years, the "hot topic" in asylum has been the backlog--the very long delays caused by too many applicants and too few adjudicators. I recently wrote about the backlog at the Asylum Office and what can be done to expedite a case. One commenter suggested that I write a post about expediting cases in Immigration Court, and since I aim to please, here it is.
Courts are still wrapping up the last of Justice Marshall's immigration cases.
The first thing to note is that the backlog in Immigration Court is huge. According to recent data, there are over 542,000 cases pending in court (not all of these cases are asylum). The average wait time for a case in Immigration Court is 677 days. The slowest court is Colorado, where wait times average 994 days. That's a long time, especially if you are separated from family members while your case is pending. For what it's worth, I have previously written about some ideas for reducing the wait time in Immigration Court (you will be shocked to learn that EOIR has not yet contacted me to implement these ideas!).
Second, advancing a case is not easy. The Immigration Court Practice Manual, page 101, specifically notes that, "Motions to advance are disfavored." The motion should "completely articulate the reasons for the request and the adverse consequences if the hearing date is not advanced." Health problems or separation from family may good reasons to advance. I discuss these and other possible reasons here (the post relates to affirmative asylum cases, but the same logic applies).
Third, expediting a case in Immigration Court is not as straightforward as expediting a case at the Asylum Office. There are different approaches that you can take, depending on the posture of your case. For advancing a case (and for the case itself), it is very helpful to have the assistance of an attorney. Indeed, according to TRAC Immigration, 91% of unrepresented asylum applicants in Immigration Court have their cases denied (whether they get other relief, like Withholding of Removal, I do not know). If you can afford a lawyer (or find one for free), it will be to your benefit in expediting and winning your asylum case in court.
OK, before we get to the various approaches for advancing a court case, let's start with a bit of background. A case commences in Immigration Court when the Notice to Appear--or NTA--is filed with the court. The NTA lists the reasons why the U.S. government believes it can deport (or, in the more bowdlerized parlance of our time, "remove") someone from the United States. After the court receives the NTA, it schedules the alien for an initial hearing, called a Master Calendar Hearing ("MCH"). At the MCH, the alien--hopefully with the help of an attorney--tells the Immigration Judge ("IJ") whether the allegations in the NTA are admitted or denied, and whether the alien agrees that he can be deported. In most asylum cases, the alien admits that he is deportable, and then informs the Judge that his defense to deportation is his claim for asylum. The IJ then schedules the alien for a Merits Hearing (also called an Individual Hearing), where the alien can present his application for asylum, and either receive asylum (or some other relief) or be ordered deported from the United States. Depending where in this process your case is, the procedures to expedite vary.
If you have the NTA, but the MCH is not yet scheduled: In some cases, the alien receives an NTA, but then waits many months before the MCH is scheduled. In this case, the delay usually lies with DHS (Department of Homeland Security), which issues the NTAs and files them with the Court, rather than with the Court itself. The Immigration Court has an automated number that you can call to check whether your case is scheduled for a hearing date. The phone number is 1-800-898-7180. Follow the prompts and enter your nine-digit Alien number (also called an "A number"). The system will tell you whether your case is scheduled and the date of the next hearing.
If the system indicates that your "A-number was not found," this probably means that the NTA has not yet been submitted to the Court. Contact the local DHS/ICE Office of the Chief Counsel and talk to the attorney on duty. Perhaps that person can help get the NTA filed with the Court, so the case can begin.
If your A-number is in the system, but there is no MCH scheduled, contact the Immigration Court directly to ask the clerk for an update. If the Court has the case, it may be possible to file a motion (a formal request) to schedule the case. However, if an IJ is not yet assigned to the case, such a request may disappear into the void once it is filed. Most lawyers (including me) would generally not file a motion until a Judge is assigned, as it is probably a waste of time, but maybe it is possible to try this, if your lawyer is willing.
While you are waiting for the Court to docket your case (i.e., give you a court date), you can gather evidence and complete your affidavit. That way, once the case is on the schedule, you will be ready to file your documents and ask to expedite.
If the MCH is scheduled: Sometimes, MCHs are scheduled months--or even years--in the future. If your case is assigned to an IJ and you have a MCH date, there are a couple options for expediting.
First, you can file a motion to advance the date of the MCH. If the MCH is sooner, the final (Merits) hearing will be sooner as well. Whether the IJ will grant the motion and give you an earlier appointment is anyone's guess. Some IJs (and their clerks) are good about this; others, not so much.
Second, you can request to do the MCH in writing (in lieu of attending the hearing in-person). Check the Immigration Court Practice Manual, pages 70 to 72, for information about filing written pleadings. If the Judge allows this, you can avoid attending the MCH and go directly to the Merits Hearing. Just be sure that your affidavit and all supporting documents are submitted, so you are ready to go if and when the IJ schedules you for a final hearing.
Many attorney, including me, do not like filing motions to advance the MCH or motions for a written MCH. The reason is because they often do not work, and so what happens is this: You prepare and file the motion, call the Court several times, and ultimately have to attend the MCH anyway. When lawyers spend time doing extra work, it is fair for them to charge the client additional money. So don't be surprised if your lawyer tells you that filing a motion will cost extra.
At the MCH: Typically, when you go to the MCH, the IJ gives you the first date available on her calendar for a Merits Hearing. But there are a few things you can do to try to get the earliest possible date.
One thing is to complete the entire case (the affidavit and all supporting documents) and give them to the IJ at the MCH. That way, if there happens to be an early opening, you can take the date (and sometimes, IJs do have early dates--for example, if another case has been cancelled). Many lawyers (again, including me) don't love this because it requires us to do all the work in advance, and it often does not help. Don't be surprised if the lawyer wants to charge extra for getting the work done early (many lawyers--and other humans--prefer to put off until tomorrow what we do not need to do today).
Second, you (or your lawyer) can try to talk to the DHS attorney prior to the MCH to see whether any issues in the case can be narrowed (usually, it is not possible to talk to DHS about the substance of the case prior to the MCH, as they have not yet reviewed the file). If that happens, maybe you will need less time to present the case, and you can tell the IJ that you expect a relatively short Merits Hearing. It may be easier for the IJ to find a one-hour opening on his calendar than a three hour opening (normally IJs reserve a three-hour time slot for asylum cases), and so you may end up with an earlier date. Even if you cannot talk with the DHS attorney, you can tell the IJ that you expect to complete the case in an hour and try to convince him to give you an earlier date, if he has one.
Third, if you have a compelling reason for seeking an earlier Merits Hearing, tell the IJ. If you have evidence demonstrating the need for an earlier date, give it to the IJ. Maybe the Judge will not have an earlier date available immediately, but at least he can keep the situation in mind and accommodate you if an earlier date opens up.
Finally, if you simply arrive early at the MCH and get in line, you may end up with an earlier Merits Hearing date than if you show up late to the MCH since IJs usually give out their earlier dates first.
After the MCH, but before the Merits Hearing: Waiting times between the MCH and the Merits Hearing are very variable, depending on the Immigration Judge's schedule. Assuming that the IJ has given you the first available Merits Hearing date (which is normal - see the previous section), there is not much point in requesting an earlier date immediately after the MCH. Maybe if you wait a few months and if luck is on your side, a spot will open up and your request will be granted. Or--if the Judge has an effective clerk--you can file a motion to advance, and the clerk will save it until a spot opens up for you.
Another possibility is to talk to the DHS attorney to see whether issues can be narrowed, which might make it more likely that the case can be advance (see the previous section).
Some words of caution: Keep in mind that the Immigration Court system is a mess. Judges come and go. Priorities shift, which sometimes causes cases to be moved. It is quite common for court dates to change. Even if you do nothing, a far-off date may be rescheduled to an earlier day, or an upcoming hearing might be delayed. If you successfully advance your court date, it is possible that the Court will later rescheduled your case to a more distant date (this happened to us once). It is difficult to remain patient (and sane) through it all, but maybe being aware of this reality will somehow help.
Also, remember to make sure that your biometrics (fingerprints) are up to date. If not, you may arrive at the Merits Hearing only to have it delayed because the background checks were not complete.
Finally, do not give up. Immigration Judges are human. If they see a compelling reason to expedite a case, most of them will try to help. Explain your situation to the Judge, or let your lawyer explain, and maybe you will end up with an earlier date.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
These days, the estimated wait time for an affirmative asylum case is somewhere between eternity and forever. It can best be expressed numerically as ∞. Or maybe as ∞ + 1. In other words, affirmative asylum cases take a long damn time. (OK, to be fair, you can get some idea about the actual wait time here).
Asylum seekcars waiting for their interview.
For some people, this wait is more of a problem than for others. For example, if your spouse and children are outside the United States waiting for you, and especially if they are living in unsafe or unhealthy conditions, the wait can be intolerable. A growing number of people are abandoning their cases simply because they cannot stand the separation. Others are moving to Canada, which apparently has a faster system than we have in the States. The problem is not simply that the wait is long—and the wait is long. The problem is that we cannot know how long the wait will be. Maybe the interview will come in six months; maybe in three years. Maybe the decision will come shortly after the interview; maybe it will take months or years. This unpredictability contributes to the difficulty of waiting for a resolution to the case.
For others people—single people without children or families that are all together here in the U.S.—the wait may be stressful, but it’s far more bearable. For my clients in this position, I advise them to live as if they will win their cases. What else can they do? To live under the constant stress of potential deportation is unhealthy. And the fact is, most of my clients have strong cases, and the likelihood that they will succeed it pretty high. So it is best to live as normally as possible. Find a job, start a business, buy a house or a car, go to school, make friends, get on with life. In the end, if such people need to leave the United States, they will have time to wind down their affairs and sell their belongings. For now, though, if I may quote the late, great Chuck Berry, Live like you wanna live, baby.
But what if you want to try to expedite your case? How can you maximize the chances that the Asylum Office will move your case to the front of the line?
First, before you file to expedite, you need to complete your case. The affidavit must be finished and all the evidence must be organized and properly translated (if necessary). If you expedite a case and the case is not complete, it could result in real problems. For example, I once had a client put himself on a short list without telling me. Then one day, an Asylum Officer called me and said that they wanted to schedule his interview for the following week. The problem was, the evidence was not submitted (or even gathered) and the affidavit was not done. The client insisted on going forward, and so (while I helped with interview preparation), I withdrew from the case. I did not want to remain affiliated with a case that was not properly put together, and I did not want to represent a person who took action on his case without informing me. In general, there is no value in expediting a case only to lose because you are not prepared for the interview, so make sure your case is complete before you try to expedite.
Second, you need a good reason to expedite. Remember, you are asking to jump your case ahead of hundreds--maybe thousands--of people who are also waiting for their asylum interview. Why should the Asylum Office allow you to do that? One common reason is that the applicant has a health problem (physical or mental). If that is your reason, get a letter from the doctor. Also, provide some explanation for how an early resolution of the asylum case might help improve your health situation (for example, maybe you have a health problem that is exacerbated by the stress of a pending case).
Another common reason to expedite (and in my opinion, the most legitimate reason to expedite) is separation from family members, especially if those family members are living under difficult or dangerous circumstances. If an asylum applicant wins her case, she can file petitions to bring her spouse and her minor, unmarried children to the United States. Many people come to the U.S. to seek asylum not for themselves, but because they fear for the safety of their family. Since it is so difficult to get a U.S. visa, it's common to see asylum seekers who leave their family members behind, in the hope that they can win asylum and bring their family members later. So when the wait for an interview (never mind a decision) is measured in years, that's a real hardship. For our asylum-seeker clients with pending applications, we have seen cases where their children were attacked in the home country, where family members went into hiding, where children could not attend school or get medical treatment, where families were stuck in third countries, etc., etc., etc. Such problems can form the basis for an expedite request.
To expedite for such a reason, get evidence of the problem. That evidence could be a doctor's note for a medical problem or an injury, or a police report if a family member was attacked or threatened. It could be a letter from a teacher that the child cannot attend school. It could be letters from the family members themselves explaining the hardship, or letters from other people who know about the problems (for advice on writing a good letter, see this article). Also, sometimes family members receive threat letters or their property is vandalized. Submit copies of such letters or photos of property damage. It is very important to submit letters and evidence in support of the expedite request. Also, remember to include evidence of the family relationship--marriage certificate or birth certificates of children--to show how the person is related to the principal asylum applicant.
There are other reasons to request an expedited interview: Until an asylum case is granted, applicants may not be able to get certain jobs, they cannot qualify for in-state tuition, they face the general stress of not knowing whether they can stay. While these issues can be quite difficult to deal with, I think that they do not compare to the hardships suffered by people separated from family members. Indeed, if I were in charge of the Asylum Division, I would allow expedited interviews only in cases of family separation.
Once your case is complete and you have gathered evidence in support of the expedite request, you need to submit the request and evidence to the Asylum Office. Different offices have different procedures for expediting. You can contact your Asylum Office to ask about the procedure. Contact information for the various Asylum Offices can be found here.
One last point about expediting asylum cases: The system for expediting cases is not well-developed, meaning that sometimes, a strong request will be denied or a weak request will be granted. There definitely seems to be an element of luck involved in the expedite request process. But of course, unless you try to expedite, you can't get your case expedited. If an initial request is denied, you can gather more evidence and try again (and again). At least in my experience, most--but not all--cases where there was a good reason to expedite were, in fact, expedited.
Besides expediting asylum cases, it is also possible to put your case on the "short list," which may result in an earlier interview date. You can learn more about that and a few other ideas here.
It is still unclear how changes in the new Administration might affect the speed of asylum cases, but I doubt that the asylum backlog is going away any time soon. In that case, for many people, the only options are to learn to live with the delay or--if there is a good reason--to ask for an expedited interview and then to hope for the best.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
The purpose of the Asylum Office Scheduling Bulletin ("AOSB") is to give asylum applicants "an estimate for when they might expect their interview to be scheduled." At best, though, it's a very rough estimate. The problem is that the AOSB tells only part of the story, and not even the most important part. Let me explain.
For two bits, Madame Blavatsky can predict when your interview will be. And I'll bet she's more accurate than the AOSB.
First, what is the AOSB? It is a chart that lists the eight main Asylum Offices. For each office, we can see the filing date of the cases that that office was interviewing in March 2016 (the most recent month listed on the chart). We can also see the two previous months (January and February 2016), which gives some idea about how quickly (or not) the office is moving through its case load.
So, for example, if you look at the Arlington, Virginia Asylum Office, you will see that as of March 2016, it is interviewing people who filed their cases in October 2013. In January and February 2016, Arlington was interviewing people who filed their cases in September 2013. The Chicago office has made the most progress during this period, advancing from May to August 2013. San Francisco is also making steady progress, moving from January to March 2014. Other offices--Houston, Los Angeles, Miami--have moved not at all. But again, this is only part of the story.
One thing the numbers do not tell you is that many of the cases filed prior to December 26, 2014 have already been interviewed. Extrapolating from our own case load, for example, I estimate that in my local Asylum Office (Arlington), approximately 60% of cases filed between October 2013 (the date listed on the AOSB) and December 2014 have already been interviewed. That's because there was a policy change on December 26, 2014 affecting how the Asylum Offices handle their cases.
What happened is this: In the Good Old Days (and the dates for "the Good Old Days" differ depending on your Asylum Office), asylum cases were filed and interviewed relatively quickly. At my local office, most interviews took place two or three months after filing. Then, starting in 2012 or 2013, and continuing until today, the number of people arriving at our Southern border increased significantly. These migrants are mostly young people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. They are fleeing violence and poverty. Some are attempting to reunite with family members already in the United States.
At the border, the migrants ask for asylum. They are generally detained and subject to a credible fear interview ("CFI"). A CFI is an initial evaluation of eligibility for asylum. It is easier to "pass" a CFI than to win asylum, and a large majority of applicants pass the interview. They are then permitted to present their asylum cases to an Immigration Judge or an Asylum Officer. Applicants who do not pass the CFI are deported.
This mass migration (often called "the surge") affects the affirmative asylum process in a few ways. First, CFIs are conducted by Asylum Officers. These are the same officers who conduct asylum interviews at the various Asylum Offices. If the officers are spending time on CFIs, they obviously are not spending time interviewing applicants at the Asylum Offices. And since most of the people arriving at the Southern border are detained, which costs the U.S. government money, CFIs get priority over the Asylum Officers' other work. Another way the surge has affected asylum seekers is that the Asylum Offices are prioritizing unaccompanied minors over other applicants. A large percentage of "surge" asylum applicants are minors, and thus their interviews receive priority over "regular" asylum seekers.
When DHS diverted resources away from the Asylum Offices, affirmative cases started piling up. This began in our local office in 2013. About 60% of the case we filed during this period were interviewed in the normal time frame; the other 40% disappeared. The disappeared cases came to be known as "the backlog."
Once it became apparent that the backlog was not going away, the Asylum Division changed its policy. Starting on December 26, 2014, cases would be interviewed on a first-in/first-out basis. This meant that the Asylum Offices started interviewing the cases in the order received, starting with the cases that had disappeared into the backlog. The AOSB was first published in about July 2015, and since then, there has not been a whole lot of progress. In Arlington, for example, since July 2015, the Asylum Office has only advanced from August to October 2013. Los Angeles is worse. Back in July 2015, they were interviewing cases filed in August 2011. Today, they are still interviewing cases filed in August 2011. Ugh.
The U.S. government has been trying to improve the situation. The Asylum Division has hired more staff, including officers devoted exclusively to CFIs. We now have a system--limited to be sure--to process refugees in-country in Central America and bring them to the U.S. More controversially, we seem to have convinced Mexico to crack down on migrants passing through its territory, and we have prioritized the deportation of "surge" applicants, sometimes at the expense of our international obligations and due process of law. But if the AOSB provides any indication, these efforts have done little to reduce the backlog.
The most important factor impacting movement at the Asylum Offices still appears to be the number of people arriving at the Southern border. As long as these numbers remain high, I am not optimistic that the Asylum Offices will make much progress on the backlog. And the prospects for improvement in the near-term do not look good: Preliminary reports from the border indicate that we can expect more asylum seekers than ever, as migrants seek to enter the U.S. before our increasingly-hostile political climate makes conditions for asylum seekers at the border even more dire.
All these factors, and more (like, how cases and CFIs are distributed between Asylum Offices, how many Asylum Officers are detailed overseas to process refugees, etc.), contribute to movement on the AOSB. Because there are so many unpredictable factors at play, I don't see how the AOSB can claim any accuracy as a long-term predictor of when an individual asylum interview will be held. To me, it's kind of like looking at the weather report a month before your vacation. It doesn't tell you much, but since it's all you've got, you pay attention anyway.
In the end, there is some value to the AOSB: Once you see that your asylum filing date is coming up, you know to prepare for your interview. Also, for applicants, I suppose it is helpful to know that they are not alone in Backlogistan. But as far as predicting interview dates, the AOSB is a mirage in the desert--it may encourage you to keep walking, but it tells you nothing about when you might get your next drink of water.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Delays in the U.S. affirmative asylum system have just about reached a breaking point. In our office, the longest-waiting applicant recently passed the three-year anniversary of his asylum interview, with no decision in sight. And of course, it's not just post-interview delays (usually due to security background checks) that are the problem. Anyone interested in asylum knows about the long wait times--anywhere from two to five years--before an applicant even receives her interview.
"At least we're all together."
Perhaps these wait times are tolerable for a single person or a family that is together here in the U.S. After all, such applicants (eventually) receive a work permit, which allows them to work, attend school, obtain a driver's license, and live a relatively normal life (though it is a life overshadowed by the uncertainty and stress of not knowing whether they can remain here).
But what about an asylum seeker who is here, but separated from his spouse and children? Can a person wait for three, four, five years or more to reunite with family members? Will a young child even know her parent, if the only contact she's had with the parent over the last several years has been via Skype? And won't such long delays make the process of integration that much more difficult for family members who are "following to join" the principal asylum applicant?
For all these reasons, I believe USCIS should be prioritizing cases of applicants who are separated from their families. Unfortunately, USCIS does prioritize such cases.
There is a possible alternative to waiting for years separated from family: Arrive at a port of entry without a visa and ask for asylum. There are different ways to arrange such an arrival. It can be done legally or illegally. It can be very dangerous or relatively safe. My question here is, what obligation do attorneys have to advise our clients about the different options?
First, though, I want to briefly discuss the various options, starting from the worst and working up to the best (or, more accurately, the least bad).
The most illegal, and most dangerous way to come to the U.S. is by hiring a smuggler and paying him to bring you to the United States. There are all sorts of smugglers, and all sorts of smuggling routes. Some routes are relatively direct; others are circuitous. People die along these smuggling routes. Many others are robbed or raped. The majority seem to get detained in various countries for various periods of time. Some get stranded for months or years. And some are lucky and arrive with few difficulties. The cost of such trips varies widely. I have heard about people paying anywhere from $10,000 to $80,000; South Asian and Chinese migrants tend to pay more than Africans. This route almost always brings the alien to the Southern border, where she can try to enter the U.S. illegally (this has become increasingly difficult and dangerous) or where she can present herself to a U.S. Customs Officer and ask for asylum (this seems to be the more popular path these days).
Another illegal way to come here is to travel by air using a fake visa and/or passport, or the passport and visa of another person. Such documents can be difficult and expensive to obtain for an individual. For a family, the cost and trouble of getting fake documents is probably much greater. Once the alien arrives at the airport, he can present the documents and try to enter the U.S. or he can ask the Customs Officer for asylum.
A final option is to travel legally to Mexico, travel legally to the U.S. border, and inform the Customs Officer that you wish to apply for asylum.
In each case, assuming that she does not manage to pass inspection and enter the United States, the asylum seeker will be detained--maybe for a few hours and maybe for many months. Many asylum seekers who make it that far are ultimately denied asylum and deported (and some remain detained during the entire Immigration Court process).
Given all these risks, it’s clear that the best alternative is to come to the United States with a visa and then seek asylum after you enter the country. The problem, of course, is that it is very difficult to obtain a U.S. visa, especially for nationals of countries that tend to send asylum seekers to the United States, and especially especially for such nationals who want to come here with their spouse and children.
As lawyers, though, we have an ethical obligation to inform our clients of the options and to let them make their own decision. So when a father comes to my office and I explain the delays in the asylum system, and I tell him that he probably won’t see his children again for two, three or more years, and then he asks whether there is any way to bring his children here sooner, what am I to say? I suppose I can tell him about the process to expedite cases, but that process barely works and, at best, it is very unpredictable. I can also advise him to try to get visas for his family members, but we both know that this probably won’t work (and it’s also ethically questionable, since I would be advising the family members to come here on a non-immigrant visa when I know they plan to remain here permanently). But what about the “Mexico option”? Do I have an obligation to suggest that his family members apply for Mexican visas, which may be easier to get than U.S. visas, and then come to the Southern border for asylum?
The more I have considered this path, the more I think I am obligated to tell my clients about it. For one thing, it is entirely legal (yes, the title of this article says that it is “illegal,” but let's call that a literary flourish to make the subject of the article more clear). If they arrive legally in Mexico, they can travel to the U.S. border and--even though they do not have permission to enter the United States--they can request asylum at the border. Despite misperceptions to the contrary, requesting asylum at border is legal. See INA § 208(a)(1).
Under U.S. law, the "circumvention of orderly refugee procedures" generally does not block a person from obtaining asylum. See Matter of Pula, 19 I&N Dec. 467 (BIA 1987). In other words, if a person does not wait for resettlement as a refugee, but instead travels to the U.S. to seek protection, he is not blocked from receiving asylum. Indeed, in my office, we have represented many people who arrived without a visa at the Southern border, and none of them was denied asylum due to the “illegal” entry.
So if a client is here in the U.S., stuck in asylum purgatory, and asks what she can do to bring her spouse and children to the U.S., I suppose I must mention the “Mexico option.” I can’t say I would recommend this option—the spouse and children will likely end up detained—but I do not think this is a decision for me to make. Maybe they are better off in detention, with a chance of release to join their asylum-seeker family member, than in the home country indefinitely separated from that family member and possibly in danger themselves.
As a lawyer, I have an ethical obligation to inform my clients about all the lawful options available to them—even the options I personally do not prefer. The path through Mexico may be an option for some, and asylum seekers have a right to know about it, so that they can make the best decisions for their families.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
When the backlog began in 2013, no one quite knew what was happening. How long would the problem persist? How would the delays affect asylum seekers? How would the delays affect the integrity of the asylum system?
It's that time of year, when annoying relatives and (marginally less) annoying lawyers, give you advice.
Two-and-a-half years later, we have some sense for what is happening, and the Asylum Division has made some adaptations to the new reality. It probably comes as no surprise that asylum seekers--and their representatives--are not satisfied with the current situation. Hence, I offer here my own ideas for improving the system. The only criteria for the below suggestions is that they do not cost anything (or at least, not much). It would be easy to propose expensive solutions (hire lots more asylum officers!) but in the current climate, I don't think that is realistic. Anyway, without further ado, here are my humble suggestions to save the world:
Don't Create Unrealistic Expectations: Most Asylum Officers are nice, and nice people do not like to make other people feel bad. And so what we frequently see is Asylum Officers giving a time frame for the decision. More often than not, this time frame under-estimates the wait time; sometimes, by a lot. As a result, asylum applicants have their expectations raised and then dashed. It would be far better to avoid this altogether. Unless they really know for certain, Asylum Officers should refrain from giving a time frame for the decision. If the decision comes quickly, the applicant will be (hopefully) pleasantly surprised; if it comes slowly, at least there will not have been an expectation of a quick decision.
Distribute Workloads More Evenly: Waiting times between Asylum Offices vary widely. Houston is currently interviewing people who filed their cases in May 2014; Los Angeles is interviewing people who filed their cases in August 2011. On it's face, it appears that people in LA wait about three years longer than people in Houston. It should be possible to assign cases in a way that reduces this disparity. Much of the delay is due to credible fear interviews, which take place remotely (by video conference or phone). Why can't these be processed in the faster offices, so that the slower offices can focus on their backlogs? In this way, perhaps wait times could be made more equitable.
Prioritize People Separated from Family Members: It is much easier to tolerate a long delay if you are not separated from your spouse and minor children. The asylum form, I-589, requests information about the applicant's spouse and children. In cases where the spouse and minor children are outside the U.S., the Asylum Offices should prioritize those cases. It is really intolerable to remain separated from small children for 2, 3, and 4 years, or more. By the time you see your child again, she won't even know you. Not to mention that in many cases, the family members are living in unsafe conditions. This is by far the worst part of the backlog, and the Asylum Division really should address the problem.
Standardize the Process of Expediting Cases, and Make the Process More Transparent: It is possible to expedite an asylum case. One way to do this is through the "short list." When an applicant adds his name to the short list, he will be called for an interview if a slot opens up. The short list can be faster than the regular queue. However, short lists open and close, and not all offices have short lists. The Asylum Offices should post information about the short lists on their websites. Perhaps the short lists can be limited to people separated from their family members. At the minimum, each Asylum Office could post on their website whether a short list is available, and whether it is open to new applicants.
It is also possible to expedite a case for emergent reasons (health problems, family members overseas in jeopardy, etc.). However, there are no hard and fast rules related to expediting cases. Each Asylum Office should have a set of rules for expediting, and those rules should be posted on their websites: What are the criteria for expediting a case? What evidence is required? How and when will a decision to expedite be made? Currently, we are in the dark about these questions. The result is that applicants are trying again and again to expedite, which wastes Asylum Office time (and attorney time) and which creates unrealistic expectations about whether a case might be expedited.
Make the EAD Valid for Two Years and Have the Receipt Automatically Extend the Old EAD: Employment Authorization Documents--EADs--are currently valid for one year. There are also delays for people applying for and renewing EADs. The result is that many people see their EAD expire before they receive the new card. This causes them to lose their jobs and their driver's licenses. If EADs were valid for two years (or longer), it would greatly reduce the problem. Also, USCIS should adopt the same policy for EADs as they have for the I-751: The receipt for the EAD should automatically extend the existing EAD until the new card arrives.
Create a FAQ Page: Tens of thousands of asylum applicants are waiting for their interviews or decisions. Waiting is difficult enough, but waiting in the absence of reliable information is even worse. The Asylum Office Scheduling Bulletin was a good start—at least now we know who is being interviewed today. But why don’t the Asylum Office websites have a link to the Scheduling Bulletin? And why don’t the paper asylum receipts include the Asylum Office website addresses? The little information that is actually available should be made more accessible.
In addition, the Asylum Division should create a FAQ page (Frequently Asked Questions). What has caused the delay? Why are there delays after the interview? How do I inquire about the status of my case? How do I request expedited review? What happens if I move? How do I travel outside the United States? These are common questions, and there really are very few places to find reliable answers, especially for those applicants who cannot afford an attorney.
The benefit of providing reliable information to asylum seekers is hard to underestimate. If I might analogize to my own fear of flying. I hate to fly (which is annoying, since I like to be in other places), and it's especially bad when there’s turbulence. But if the pilot announces,“We’re experiencing some normal turbulence. We should pass through in 10 minutes,” I immediately feel better. The psychological benefit of being informed is a real benefit, and the psychological harm of not knowing, is a real harm. Providing more information to asylum seekers, from a reliable source, would be a big help.
Finally, I will add one "bonus" suggestion, which I've made before. USCIS should allow for premium processing of asylum applications. I believe the primary objection to this idea is the appearance of impropriety: It looks bad when an asylum seeker is able to pay money to expedite his case. However, I still believe that the benefits of premium processing outweigh this concern. Those who oppose the asylum system will never be convinced, and there is little point in trying to appease them, especially when the cost of appeasement is further harm to people seeking asylum.
OK, Asylum Division, there you have it. Now, let's see what you can do.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.