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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum


  1. A Statistical Look at the Arlington Asylum Office

    My intrepid associate, Ruth Dickey, has been analyzing data from our cases filed at the Arlington Asylum Office during the past few years. She reports her findings here:

    In December 2014, USCIS announced that it would address the asylum backlog in a new way: “First in, first out.” Prior to this new policy, the Asylum Offices were trying to complete as many cases as possible within 60 days. Cases that could not be interviewed within 60 days fell into the backlog. Over time, the number of cases entering the backlog grew and grew. Nationally, as of May 2015, over 85,000 applications are stuck in the backlog.

    When we learned about the new “first in, first out” policy, we were hopeful that our oldest cases would be interviewed one after another in quick succession. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen—at least not yet (hope springs eternal, even for asylum lawyers). Let’s take a closer look at what is going on at the Arlington Asylum Office, the office where most of our cases are pending.

    During 2013 and 2014, we filed 136 cases that are analyzed here (some cases—where the applicant moved to a different jurisdiction, for example—were excluded from the analysis in order not to skew the data). As you can see from the chart below, a large percentage of our cases fell into the backlog during those years, particularly during the second and third quarters of 2013. The low interview numbers in mid-2013 are likely due to the summer “border surge,” when many Central Americans started arriving at our Southern border and requesting asylum. The surge continued into 2014 and continues up until today. Especially in the beginning, USCIS was not prepared for the surge, and so we suspect the low interview numbers during the second and third quarters of 2013 are due to the government’s inability to deal with the sudden increase in applications.

    As you can see in the next chart, a higher percentage of our cases were interviewed in 2014 than in 2013, suggesting that the Asylum Office was handling the volume more effectively. Even so, a significant portion of our cases—almost 40%—fell into the backlog in 2014. Given that the government has already interviewed the majority of cases from the fourth quarter of 2013 and from 2014, we are hopeful that once the Asylum Office reaches those cases, it will move through that portion of the backlog more quickly (the Arlington Asylum Office is currently interviewing cases filed in August 2013—about half way through the third quarter).

    Since the change to the “first in, first out” policy, things have been moving slowly in Arlington. Only 16 of our backlogged cases have been scheduled for interviews during the first six months of 2015. As a point of comparison, during the same period in 2014, we had exactly twice that many—32 cases—interviewed.

    For those people in the backlog who have been scheduled for an interview in 2015 (since the implementation of the new policy), how long did they have to wait? From the date the application was received until the date of the interview, the median wait time was 678 days. The following chart shows the wait times (in days - on the vertical axis) for our clients who were interviewed in 2015. You can see that there is some variability in wait times:

    The family that had to wait the longest—809 days—had been scheduled for an earlier interview, but was rescheduled because their file was apparently not in the Asylum Office (where it disappeared to, we don’t know). It took an additional four months to retrieve the file and get the interview. Hopefully, we won’t see this problem again. Another of the longer-delayed cases had been scheduled for an earlier interview, but was rescheduled by the Asylum Office without explanation. This happens periodically, and we even saw it on occasion in the good old days, prior to the backlog.

    Once people are finally interviewed, how long does it take to get a decision? The Asylum Office generally tries to make decisions in two weeks. Of the 16 cases from 2015, eight have received decisions. Sixteen cases is a very small number, and so we can only draw limited conclusions from this data. However, the oldest case in the group of 16 has been languishing since January. And, unfortunately, this person is not alone. Many others who were interviewed in 2013 and 2014 are still waiting for their decisions.

    So that is a look at what we know now. As we continue to analyze the data, we will post what we learn.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
  2. My Asylum Case Is Delayed; What Can I Do?

    These days, I feel a bit like a broken record: Delay, delay, delay. It's all I seem to write about (and what I spend much of my work day dealing with). But it is the big issue with asylum cases, both in the Asylum Office and the Immigration Court, and so it is on everyone's mind. Today I want to talk about delay at the Asylum Office and what can be done about it.
    Yipee! Asylum cases filed during the Jurassic period are now being interviewed.

    Most recently, the Asylum Office changed its policy and is now interviewing old cases before new cases. This means that new cases will probably take one to two years before the interview. Previously-filed cases will be interviewed in the order that they were received by the Asylum Office. Our oldest backlog cases--filed in April 2013--have just been scheduled for interviews, so we are starting to see the effect of the new policy.

    Anyway, let's get to it. If your case is delayed, what can you do about it? There are several actions you can take to try to get a faster interview date. None of them is guaranteed to work, but--depending on your circumstances--some may be worth a try.

    Short List
    : You can put your case on the “short list.” The short list is a list of people who will be contacted for an interview if another case is canceled. In my local Asylum Office (Virginia), there are approximately 250 cases on the short list. The Asylum Office interviews about 10 such cases per month, so the "short list" is not very short or very fast. When your name is called, you may not have much notice before the interview (for example, the Asylum Office could call you today and tell you to appear for an interview tomorrow). For this reason, when you put your name on the short list, your case should be complete and all documents should be submitted. This is particularly crucial if your Asylum Office--like mine--requires all documents to be submitted at least one week prior to the interview.

    Once your name is on the short list, the Asylum Office will eventually contact you for an interview. In the event that you are called, but cannot attend, there is no penalty. However, your name will go to the back of the line, so probably you will not be called again for some time.

    The bottom line here is that the short list may be a way to get an earlier interview date, but it is not all that fast. So it is certainly not a perfect solution. On the other hand, there really is no downside to putting your name on the short list, so if you would like to move your case faster, this is a good first step.

    Request to Expedite
    : If you have a medical, family, professional, or other emergency or need, you can ask the Asylum Office to expedite your case. We have had mixed luck with this option. We've tried to expedite for several people where they had family members overseas who were facing problems. For most of these cases, the Asylum Office did not expedite, but for a few, it did. We were able to expedite a case where the client had cancer. We've also had luck expediting a case where the client needed to obtain status for professional reasons. In short, our success at expediting cases seems to have little relationship to the seriousness of the client's problem.

    If you want to expedite your case, you need to contact the Asylum Office and ask to expedite. You need to explain why you want to expedite and include some evidence--such as a doctor's note--about the reason you want the case expedited. Again, we've had very mixed success with getting our clients' cases expedited, but there really is no down side to trying.

    : You can contact your local Congressional Representative to ask for help with your case. You can find contact information for your local Representative here and for your state's Senators here. Generally, in my experience, this option has not been effective at getting a faster interview date, but there is no harm in trying. If you have a U.S. citizen friend (or church group or other group) who can make this request for you, it may be more effective.

    DHS Ombudsman
    : You can inquire with the DHS Ombudsman’s office about your case. This office exists to assist people who have problem cases. The Ombudsman's website is here. I have a high opinion of the Ombudsman's office, and they do want to help, but I think their ability to make cases go faster is very limited. I doubt they will be able to help make a case faster under ordinary circumstances. But perhaps if you have tried to expedite due to an emergency, and you have not had success, they could assist you.

    : You can file a Mandamus lawsuit against the Asylum Office. In a Mandamus lawsuit, you sue the Asylum Office and ask the Judge to order the Asylum Office to do its job (process your case). I have never done this, but I have heard about some applicants successfully suing the Asylum Office. Generally, the Asylum Office will not want to waste resources fighting Mandamus suits, so they might agree to process the case rather than fight the lawsuit. As I see it, the two downsides to this are: (1) There is not a strong legal basis to force the Asylum Office to process a person's case. The regulations generally require asylum cases to be processed in less than six months, but there are broad exceptions to this time frame, and the Asylum Office can rely on those exceptions to process cases more slowly. Although the suits may not be very strong legally, they can still succeed where the Asylum Office would rather interview the applicant than fight the lawsuit; and (2) It can be expensive to hire an attorney to process a Mandamus lawsuit. For applicants who can afford this approach, however, it might offer a way to make things faster (though it will surely not enamor you to the Asylum Office).

    To learn more about your options, you may want to contact your local Asylum Office. Contact information about your office can be found here. There is no magic solution to delay at the Asylum Office, but I hope that some of these suggestions will be helpful. If you have had success with these or other ideas, please let us know.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
  3. Old Asylum Cases Are the New Priority

    As of December 2014, there was 73,103 asylum cases pending in Asylum Offices across the United States. That's up from 65,759 in October, an increase of 7,344 cases in just three months (you can see the latest stats here, including a breakdown for each Asylum Office). So it's clear that despite their efforts, the Asylum Offices are continuing to fall behind in terms of processing cases. Indeed, in the best month of the last quarter, the Asylum Office completed 2,947 cases. At that rate--and assuming no new applicants file for asylum--it would take over two years to get through the current backlog. This is not good, and the Asylum Offices are now making changes to deal with the situation.
    "Congratulations! It's finally your turn."
    I've written before about the reasons for these delays. Primarily, it was due to a significant increase of asylum seekers from Central America arriving at our Southern border. As best as I can tell, the number of people coming here from Central America has not abated. Since most of these applicants are detained at government expense and because many of them are minors, their cases are given priority, at the expense of other asylum seekers.

    So how were the Asylum Offices dealing with the increased volume, and what has changed?

    Until December of last year, the Asylum Offices were attempting to process cases on a “last in, first out” basis. Meaning, they skipped over the old cases and tried to process new cases. The logic was that if they started with the old cases, processing times would be greatly increased for new cases. If an alien knows her case will take several years, she might decide to file a frivolous case, just for the Employment Authorization document ("EAD"). The slower the case moves--the thinking goes--the greater the incentive for such people to file false cases. The fear of frivolous applicants taking advantage of the system in this way is not unfounded.

    In the 1980s and early 1990s, when a person filed for asylum, he received an EAD more quickly. At this time, there were massive delays and cases took many years. The combination of long waiting periods and quick EADs encouraged fraud. I heard one anecdote from an INS officer who remembered a U-Haul truck full of applications arriving for processing. They were all boilerplate cases from China, filed by the same (probably unscrupulous) attorney. Even if the cases were ultimately denied, the applicants would have an EAD and be able to live and work in the U.S. for several years. Of course, many cases during this period were legitimate. In those days, there were very brutal civil wars in several Central American countries. As a result, many people fled to the United States.

    In 1995, the law changed so that asylum applicants had to wait 180 days before they were eligible for an EAD (though they could mail the application for the EAD after 150 days). This was intended to reduce fraud. I have my doubts as to whether this change made much of an impact, but as the civil wars to our South ended, refugee flows decreased, and the Asylum Offices slowly reduced wait times. By the time I went into private practice (in late 2003), asylum cases were interviewed a few months after filing, and most applicants received decisions a few weeks after the interview.

    This all changed in early 2013, when large numbers of Central Americans--mostly young people--again began arriving at our border. The migration was not spurred by war, but by generalized violence from gangs and domestic abusers, as well as a failure by Central American governments to protect their citizens. The influx of new people overwhelmed the system and created the situation that we have today.

    USCIS (the Asylum Office) has been struggling to keep up. Here is a recent announcement about their efforts:

    The USCIS Asylum Division is hiring an additional 175 asylum officers, increasing the number of authorized asylum officer positions to 448. This represents a 65% increase since July 2013. As of January 2015, the Asylum Division has 350 officers on board and continues to hire and train new personnel. During 2014, USCIS also trained and temporarily detailed officers to the Asylum Division to assist with the increasing workload.

    Unfortunately, their efforts have not been enough. As of December 26, 2014, they abandoned the "last in, first out" system. Now, the Asylum Offices will process cases in the following order of priority:

    • First, applications that were scheduled for an interview, but the applicant requested a new interview date;
    • Second, applications filed by children; and
    • Third, all other pending affirmative asylum applications will be scheduled for interviews in the order they were received, with oldest cases scheduled first.

    In other words, aside from rescheduled cases and cases involving children, the Asylum Offices will now process old cases first. So what does this mean?

    First, the good news. For those who have been waiting for two years for an interview, hopefully, your time is coming soon (though in my office, we have not yet seen any of our old cases scheduled).

    Next, the bad news. If you are a new asylum applicant, you can expect to wait a long time for your interview. How long, we do not know, but I suspect that--even if they hire more officers, as they are trying to do--it will be at least a year. There are some minimal things to do to make a case faster (the "short list" and a request to expedite for emergent reasons), but generally it is very difficult to obtain a faster interview date.

    And finally, the possibly bad news. We will see whether long delays encourage people to file more frivolous cases. If so, it will further clog the system.

    As for me, of course I am rarely happy about change, and this change is no exception. I am glad that the government will start processing old cases. Those people have been waiting a long time. However, I wish they would give priority to people separated from their spouse and children--whether they filed two years ago or two days ago. It seems to me that single people can endure the wait much better. Like the old system, the new system does little to help people who are missing their family members, and to me, that is the real tragedy of the backlog.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
  4. I Was Interviewed for Asylum, But I Never Received a Decision

    Some asylum seekers file their applications and never receive an interview. Others are interviewed for asylum and never receive a decision. I've discussed the first problem--called the backlog--several times, but today I want to discuss the second problem. What happens to people who are interviewed for asylum, but then wait forever for a decision?

    Better late than never.

    I’ve had a number of clients with this problem. They fall into a few broad categories.

    One group are people from countries that are considered a security threat to the United States--countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. People from such countries are subject to more extensive—and thus more time consuming—security background checks. The security check process is very opaque, so we really don’t know much about what the government is checking or why it takes so long, and the length of the delay seems to have nothing to do with the person's personal history (for example, I've had clients who worked in the U.S. Embassy in their country or with the U.S. military, and still the background check was delayed). To me, the security background check delays don't make sense. If the person is a threat to the United States, allowing him to live freely here for months or years while the government investigates his background seems like a bad idea. Another aspect of the background check that does not make sense is that asylum seekers in court never seem to be delayed by security checks. Also, aliens seeking their residency in other ways (marriage to a U.S. citizen or through employment) don't seem to have problems with background checks either. While the need for background checks is clear, the inordinate delays for asylum seekers is hard to understand.

    Another group of people who face delays after the interview are people who may have provided "material support" to terrorists or persecutors. I have a client like this--he was kidnapped by terrorists and released only after he negotiated a ransom (which was paid by his relative). Had he not paid the ransom, his case would not have been delayed post-interview. Of course, had he not paid the ransom, he would have been killed by the kidnappers, so the point would probably be moot. I imagine that his case is subject to review by Headquarters, which again, seems reasonable. But why it should take 10 months (so far) and what they hope to discover through an additional review, I don't know.

    A third group of people whose cases are delayed are members of disfavored political parties or organizations. Such people might also be subject to the "material support" bar, but even if they have not provided support to persecutors, their cases might be delayed.

    A final group are high-profile cases, such as diplomats and public figures. When such a person receives asylum (or is denied asylum), there are potential political ramifications. Again, while I imagine it makes sense to review such cases at a higher level, I am not exactly sure what such a review will accomplish. The law of asylum is (supposedly) objective--we should not deny asylum to an individual just because her home government will be offended--so it is unclear what there is to review.

    These delays are particularly frustrating given that decisions in asylum cases should generally be made within six months of filing. According to INA § 208(d)(5)(A)(iii), "in the absence of exceptional circumstances, final administrative adjudication of the asylum application, not including administrative appeal, shall be completed within 180 days after the date an application is filed." Unfortunately, the "exceptional circumstances" clause is the exception that swallows the rule. These days, everything from backlog to background check to Asylum Office error seems to pass for exceptional circumstances. I know this is not really anyone's fault--the Asylum Offices are overwhelmingly busy, but it is still quite frustrating.

    Indeed, I have had clients waiting for more than two years (two years!) after their interview, and the asylum offices can give us not even a hint about when we will receive a decision. The worst part about these delays is how they affect asylum seekers who are separated from their families. I've already had a few clients with strong claims abandon their cases due to the intolerable wait times. The saddest case was an Afghan man who recently left the country, two years after receiving a "recommended approval." The client had a wife and small children who were waiting in Afghanistan. After he received the recommended approval--in 2012--we were hopeful that he would soon receive his final approval, and then petition for his family. After enduring a two-year wait, during which time first his child and then his wife suffered serious illnesses, the client finally gave up and returned to his family. This is a man who worked closely with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and who has a very legitimate fear of the Taliban. In his case, we would have been better off if the Asylum Office had just denied his claim--at least then he would have known that he was on his own. Instead, he relied on our country for help, we told him we would help, and then we let him down.

    Delays after the interviews seem to affect a minority of applicants, and they have not garnered as much attention as the backlog. However, they can be just as frustrating and never-ending as backlogged cases. At the minimum, it would be helpful if the Asylum Offices could provide some type of time frame for these people, particularly when they are separated from family members. As DHS struggles to deal with the backlog, I hope they don't forget about those who have been interviewed, but who are also stuck waiting.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
  5. Why Has the Asylum Office Skipped My Case? Part 2: Solutions

    Last time, I discussed the asylum case backlog from 2013: Why it happened, what (little) can be done to help, and DHS's justification for processing new cases before old cases. Today, I want to make some suggestions about how DHS might better handle this situation.

    DHS has created a new, less humorous version of the old NPR gameshow.

    First and foremost, DHS should provide better information about what is happening. While I imagine that DHS does not always know what is happening (after all, the backlog is unprecedented), it could be providing better information to the backlogged applicants. Some info that would be helpful: (1) An estimate of when the backlogged cases will be heard. Maybe DHS has no idea, but at least tell us something. Apparently, many new officers and support staff have been hired. Will some of these people be dedicated to backlogged cases (I've heard that at the San Francisco office one or two officers will be assigned to backlogged cases). Is there any sort of plan to deal with the backlog? Leaving applicants completely in the dark is the worst possible way to handle the situation; (2) If a particular Asylum Office has an "expedite list," it would be helpful to know the applicant's place in line and how many people are on the list. Is she the third person or the 200th person? This would at least give some idea of the wait time, especially if DHS updated each person's place in line as they move forward; and (3) It would be very helpful if the Asylum Offices explained why the backlog exists, what they are doing about it (hiring new officers), and what the applicants can do (apply for work permits, criteria to have a case expedited). While people like me can try to tell applicants what we know (and hopefully our information is more right than wrong), it is far better to hear it from the source. Each Asylum Offices has its own website, so it should be easy enough to publish this information.

    Another thing the Asylum Offices could do to ease the pain of the backlog is to give priority to backlogged cases based on family reunification. As I noted last time, one justification for the backlog is that applicants can get their work permits while their cases are in limbo. Of course, the work permit is helpful (even crucial) for many applicants, but for people separated from spouses and children, reunification is the number one issue. This is especially true where the family members are in unsafe situations. I know that in a large bureaucracy, nothing is as simple as it seems, but why can't DHS prioritize expedite requests where the applicant has a spouse or child overseas?

    A third possibility is to dedicate one or more Asylum Officers in each office to work on backlogged cases. As I mentioned, San Francisco will assign one or two Officers to deal with the backlog. What about the other offices? At least if we could see some progress--even a little--with the old cases, it would give hope to the people who are waiting.

    Finally, once a backlogged case is decided, DHS should give priority to any I-730 (following to join) petition filed by a granted applicant. Family separation is a terrible hardship. At least DHS (and the Embassies) can make up for some of the delay already suffered by moving I-730s for these cases to the front of the line. These applicants and their families have already waited long enough.

    In a perfect world, asylum cases would be processed in the order received. However, I understand DHS's concerns and the reasons for adjudicating new cases before old cases. By providing more information to backlogged applicants and by giving priority to people separated from their families, DHS can ease the pain caused by delay without implicating the policy concerns that brought us the backlog in the first place.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
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