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I haven't written about the asylum backlog in awhile. Mostly, that's because the subject is too depressing. Cases are taking years. Many of my clients are separated from their spouses and children. A number of my clients have given up, and left the U.S. for Canada or parts unknown. The backlog has also made the job of being an asylum attorney more difficult and less rewarding--both financially and emotionally. That said, I suppose an update on the backlog is overdue. But I warn you, the news is not good.
“Let’s talk about the asylum backlog… again.”
The most recent report from the USCIS Ombudsman—which I have been trying not to look at since it came out in June—indicates that the affirmative asylum backlog (the backlog with the Asylum Offices, as opposed to the Immigration Court backlog) has increased from 9,274 cases on September 30, 2011 to 128,303 cases as of December 31, 2015. This, despite significant efforts by the Asylum Division, and the U.S. government, to address the issue.
The Ombudsman’s report lists five main reasons for the dramatic increase in backlogged cases: (1) high volume of credible and reasonable fear interviews; (2) a rise in affirmative asylum filings; (3) increased numbers of filings with USCIS by unaccompanied minors in removal proceedings; (4) the diversion of Asylum Office resources to the Refugee Affairs Division; and (5) high turnover among asylum officers. Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on.
First, the number of credible and reasonable fear interviews at the border have increased significantly over the last several years (when an asylum seeker arrives at the border, she is subject to a credible or reasonable fear interview, which is an initial evaluation of asylum eligibility). The numbers for FY 2015 were slightly down from a high of about 50,000 interviews in FY 2014, but FY 2016 looks to be the busiest year yet in terms of credible and reasonable fear interviews. The reasons that people have been coming here in increased numbers has been much discussed (including by me), and I won’t re-hash that here. I do suspect that the upcoming election—and talk of building a wall—is causing more people to come here before the door closes. Maybe after the election, regardless of who wins, the situation will calm down a bit.
Second, the number of affirmative asylum applications has also increased. There were 83,197 applications in FY 2015—up 130% from FY 2011. There are probably many reasons for the increase, but I imagine the chaotic situation in the Middle East, violence in Central America and Mexico, and political persecution in China are important “push factors.” The relatively strong U.S. economy and the presence of ethnic communities already in the United States are a few factors “pulling” migrants to our country.
Third, an increased number of minors in removal proceedings have been filing their cases with the Asylum Division. Unaccompanied minors who have a case in Immigration Court are entitled to a non-confrontational asylum interview at the Asylum Office. The number of these children requesting an interview has increased from 718 in FY 2013 to 14,218 cases in FY 2015, and these cases have added to the Asylum Division’s case load.
Fourth, President Obama has increased the “refugee ceiling” from 70,000 to 85,000. In order to process these cases and bring the refugees from overseas, the Refugee Affairs Division has been borrowing asylum officers—about 200 such officers will be sent to the RAD for two months stints. And of course, if they are working on refugee cases, they cannot be working on asylum cases.
Finally, the Asylum Division’s efforts to reduce the backlog have been hampered by a high turnover rate among Asylum Officers. According to the Ombudsman’s report, the attrition rate for Asylum Officers was 43% (!) in FY 2015. Some of the “attrition” was actually the result of officers being promoted internally, but 43% seems shockingly high.
As a result of these factors, wait times have continued to grow in most offices. The slowest office remains Los Angeles, where the average wait time for an interview is 53 months. The long delays in LA are largely because that office has a high proportion of credible and reasonable fear interviews (“CFIs” and “RFIs”). New York, which is the only office where wait times have decreased, has an average wait time of just 19 months. The NY office does not have a detention facility within its jurisdiction, and so there are fewer CFIs and RFIs. As a result, the NY office is better able to focus on “regular” asylum cases and can move those cases along more quickly.
The Ombudsman report also discusses post-interview wait times, which stem from “pending security checks, Asylum division Headquarters review, or other circumstances.” The wait time between a recommended approval and a final approval has increased from 83 days in FY 2014 to 105 days for FY 2016. Also, the delay caused by Headquarters review has increased to 239 days in FY 2016 (I wrote about some reasons why a case might be subject to headquarters review here). In my office, we have been seeing delays much longer than these, primarily for our clients from Muslim countries.
The report discusses delays related to Employment Authorization Documents (“EADs”). Regulations provide for a 30-day processing time for EADs, but USCIS “regularly fails to meet” that deadline. Indeed, the processing time for EADs at the Vermont Service Center is “at least 110 days,” which—based on my calculations—is somewhat longer than the 30-day goal. One improvement in this realm is that EADs for asylum applicants will now be valid for two years instead of one (this change went into effect earlier this month). If EADs are valid for a longer time period, USCIS will have fewer EADs to renew, and hopefully this will improve the overall processing time.
The Asylum Division has responded to this mess by (1) hiring new officers; (2) establishing new sub-offices; (3) publishing the Affirmative Asylum Scheduling Bulletin (I discuss why the Bulletin is not a good predictor of wait times here); and (4) developing new EAD procedures.
The number of new Asylum Officers has increased from 203 in 2013 to over 400, as of February 2016, and USCIS was authorized to employ a total of 533 officers in FY 2016. USCIS has also been trying to mitigate the high level of turnover. They created the “Senior Asylum Officer” position, which, aside from offering a fancy title, may allow for a higher salary, and they have scaled up their training programs in order to get more officers “on line.”
In addition, USCIS has opened new sub-offices, including one in Crystal City, Virginia, which will (hopefully) employ 60 officers to conduct exclusively CFIs and RFIs by phone or video link. Supposedly, the Crystal City office will assist Los Angeles with its CFIs and RFIs in an effort to reduce the close-to-eternal backlog in that office.
Finally, USCIS is trying to improve the EAD process. One change is that applicants who move their case from one Asylum Office to another will no longer be penalized for causing delay. Previously, if an applicant caused delay, her Asylum Clock would be stopped and she could not get her EAD. USCIS has also proposed a rule change so that an applicant’s EAD will automatically be extended when she files for a new card. I wrote about this proposed (and much-needed) change almost one year ago, and it has yet to be implemented. Lastly, as mentioned, EADs are now valid for two years instead of one.
So there you have it. There is no doubt that USCIS and the Asylum Division are making efforts to improve the situation. But unless and until the crisis at the border subsides, it seems unlikely that we will see any major improvements in the way cases are progressing through the system. So for now, we will wait, and hope.
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.
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.
For some time now, we've been hearing from the Asylum Division that they would post a "Scheduling Bulletin" to give affirmative asylum seekers a better idea about wait times. Well, the Bulletin has finally arrived, which is--in a sense--good news. But it's also bad news, since now we see exactly how slowly things are progressing at most asylum offices.
First off, if you're curious about the status of your asylum office, check out the Bulletin here. What you'll see is a breakdown of each asylum office and which cases they are currently interviewing (as of July 2015). So, for example, in July 2015, the Arlington Asylum Office was interviewing cases originally filed in August 2013. The chart also lists which cases each office was interviewing over the past few months, so you can see how quickly (or not) each office is moving through its cases.
Most geologists agree: The asylum offices are moving pretty quickly (except for Los Angeles).
Reviewing the Bulletin, a few things jump out at me. First, and most distressing, cases are moving very slowly at most asylum offices, and a few offices--notably Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami--have made no discernible progress in the last four months. One mitigating factor here is that it's summer, a time when the Southern border is particularly busy. Hopefully, once the number of asylum seekers arriving at the border wanes (as it generally does in autumn), the asylum offices will start interviewing more backlogged cases (if you are not familiar with the "asylum backlog," please see this posting).
Another point worth noting is that the two asylum offices with jurisdiction over the Southern border states--Los Angeles and Houston--represent the slowest and the fastest offices, respectively. Los Angeles is currently interviewing cases filed in August 2011 (which is slower than I realized--I had thought they were interviewing cases from 2012) and they have been stuck on the August 2011 cases for the last four months. On the other hand, Houston, Texas is the fastest asylum office. They are interviewing cases filed in April 2014, though they have made almost no progress in the last four months either. What's strange is that there is such disparity along the Southern border. I do not know why resources cannot be distributed more evenly to give some relief to asylum seekers at the LA office.
The only asylum office that has shown significant movement over the last four months is New York. In April 2015, the NY asylum office was interviewing cases filed in January 2013. By July 2015, they were interviewing cases filed in June/July 2013. Newark, New Jersey has also done reasonably well, advancing from December 2012 to April 2013 during the same period.
Rescheduled cases and cases involving children (many of the asylum seekers at the Southern border are children) receive priority over "regular" asylum cases. And according to the Bulletin, the asylum offices in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Miami have had many such cases. Presumably this explains the lack of progress in those asylum offices.
Finally, for people with cases pending at one of the sub offices, the Bulletin notes that it "currently does not include asylum interviews occurring outside of the eight asylum offices or the Boston sub-office (e.g. interviews occurring on circuit rides)." "Asylum offices schedule circuit ride interviews as resources permit." The Bulletin suggests that applicants contact the "asylum office with jurisdiction over your case for more detailed information" about the schedule at sub offices. You can find contact information for each asylum office here.
So there you have it. The Bulletin will be updated monthly so you can track how quickly each asylum office is moving through the backlog. Though the current situation is discouraging, at least the Bulletin provides some information about where we stand now, and maybe some hope for those who are waiting.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.