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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

The Asylum Office Is Getting Tougher (Probably)

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Last week, the Asylum Division changed the way it processes cases. Instead of interviewing asylum cases in the order they were filed (first-in, first-out), cases will now be interviewed on a last-in, first-out or LI-FO basis. We've been learning more about the reasons for this change, and I want to share what I've heard here. But before I get to that, I want to discuss another important change that has recently become apparent: The dramatic drop in grant rates for cases at most asylum offices.


The new Asylum Officer training regimen.


The below chart compares asylum approval rates at the various asylum offices for the months of December 2016 and December 2017 (the most recent month when data is available). Admittedly, this is a snapshot of events, and an imperfect snapshot at that. Nevertheless, I think it illustrates a larger trend.

The left number in each column represents the number of cases approved during the month. The number on the right is the number of cases completed. The percentage shows the percentage of cases approved in that office. So in December 2016, Arlington approved 89 cases out of 317 completed, meaning that 28% of completed cases were approved. Conversely, 72% of applicants were denied asylum or referred to court, but that includes people who failed to show up for their interview, so the denial rate for people who actually appear is not as bad as it seems from the chart (as they say, in life, eighty percent of success is showing up). With that out of the way, here are the stats:


Asylum Office December 2016 December 2017
Arlington 89/317 (28%) 80/276 (29%)
Boston 45/108 (42%) 27/168 (16%)
Chicago 75/186 (40%) 80/362 (22%)
Houston 28/119 (24%) 58/437 (13%)
Los Angeles 258/528 (49%) 389/1195 (33%)
Miami 73/243 (30%) 76/650 (12%)
Newark 118/358 (33%) 155/866 (18%)
New York 103/496 (21%) 87/858 (10%)
New Orleans 41/83 (49%) 83/188 (44%)
San Francisco 219/303 (72%) 196/429 (46%)
United States 1049/2741 (38.3%) 1231/5429 (22.7%)


So you can see that asylum grant rates are pretty dramatically down at most offices, and that for the entire country, they are down about 40% (from 38.3% to 22.7%) (you can see the source for these statistics here for 2016 and here for 2017). While the various grant rates could represent anomalies, they comport with larger trends, as shown in the next chart, which lists grant rates for the U.S. as a whole over the last few years:


Fiscal Year Asylum Grant Rate
FY 2015 45%
FY 2016 41%
FY 2017 34%
FY 2018 26%


You can see from this chart that asylum grant rates have been dropping since FY 2015 (which began on October 1, 2014), but the decrease is more pronounced in the two most recent fiscal years (and of course, we are only a few months into FY 2018). Further, if the December 2017 data is any indicator, the grant rate is continuing to drop.

My first question--and be forewarned, I don't really intend to answer these questions--is, Why is this happening? The temptation is to attribute the drop to President Trump's anti-immigrant agenda, but I don't find that explanation very convincing. First, grant rates began to fall long before Mr. Trump took office. Second, even after he was sworn in--in the second quarter of FY 2017--it takes months to implement new policies. Most asylum officers were hired pre-Trump, and that was especially true in FY 2017, since it takes time to hire and train new people. In addition, I have not observed any real changes in the pool of asylum officers that I meet (then again, the grant rate at my local office--Arlington--seems to have held steady, at least as illustrated in the first chart).

So if it's not President Trump, what's going on? One possibility--and I suspect this is the explanation that the Asylum Division favors--is that a higher portion of cases interviewed in recent years are meritless. In other words, as the backlog grew and delays became longer, people with weak cases were incentivized to file for asylum in order to get their employment authorization document ("EAD"). These people knew that their cases would take years, and so they filed mostly to obtain some status here and work legally. But now, as more and more of these people are reaching the interview stage, their cases are being denied. There is some evidence for this theory--according to the Asylum Division, of the 314,000 backlogged asylum cases, 50,000+ applications were filed more than 10 years after the applicant entered the United States. For various reasons, such cases are more likely to be meritless, and--even if they are legitimate--they are more likely to be denied due to the one year asylum filing deadline.

If this second explanation is correct, then perhaps there will be a silver lining to the recent change in how asylum cases are interviewed. If people get faster interviews, maybe fewer meritless applicants will seek asylum.

Whether or not this will work, we shall see. But a test is soon coming (probably). The Trump Administration has ended TPS (Temporary Protected Status) for El Salvador and other countries. It has also terminated the DACA program. This means that in the absence of a legislative fix, hundreds of thousands of people will have no way to avoid deportation other than to go into hiding or to seek asylum. You can bet that many of them will seek asylum (and indeed, given the violent countries from whence they came, many have legitimate reasons to fear return).

We know from a recent meeting at the Arlington Asylum Office that the end of TPS and DACA were two reasons for changing to the FI-LO process. But whether this new procedure will stem the potential tidal wave of applications, I have my doubts.

All this brings us to the final question (for today)--What does this mean for asylum seekers? As usual, I don't have a good answer. People filing now can probably expect an interview soon and should submit all evidence so they are ready for the interview. However, if volume is too high, not everyone will get an interview. My impression is that if the interview is not scheduled within 21 days of receiving the receipt, then the case will "disappear" and will only be interviewed once the Asylum Office starts working on backlogged cases. It's likely that some cases will disappear, since the number of people seeking asylum is still out-pacing the government's ability to interview applicants. Also, there are (once again) increasing numbers of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S./Mexico border, and the Asylum Offices must devote resources to those cases as well.

Local offices control the expedite process and the short list, and it seems that most offices will continue to offer those options. However, the Asylum Division is expecting fewer "no shows" with the new system, and so there may be less slots available for expedited or short-listed cases.

Finally, under the pre-December 2014 system, when an asylum case was sent to Immigration Court, the judge would schedule a quick hearing date for any applicant who had not yet received his EAD (in an effort to dissuade meritless applicants from seeking asylum merely to get an EAD). It looks like the Immigration Courts will again be doing this same thing, and so if you have a fast asylum interview and you are referred to court, you should be prepared for a fast hearing date in court.

For what it's worth, my impression is that the Asylum Division is well aware of the pain it will inflict by re-ordering how asylum cases are interviewed. But they are looking at the "big picture" and they hope that changing to a FI-LO system will reduce meritless applications and ultimately benefit legitimate asylum seekers. I hope they are correct, but until then, I fear things will be worse before they get better.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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