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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Update on the Asylum Backlog

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If you've visited this website before, you know that I've written about the asylum backlog again and again... and again and again and again and again. And yet again. And once more. And probably a few other times in-between. USCIS recently released some new statistics on asylum, and so I thought I would share them here and discuss the current situation.


Measured in smoots, the backlog is 86.9 miles long + one ear.

First off, despite the efforts of the Asylum Division, the backlog continues to grow. In January 2015, the total number of backlogged cases was 76,446. By the end of March 2015, there were 82,175 backlogged asylum cases nationwide. The numbers have only increased since then.


The main cause of the backlog has been large numbers of people--mostly young people--coming to the United States from Central America. These young people are detained at the border and receive a credible fear interview, which is an initial assessment of eligibility for asylum. If they pass the credible fear interview, their case is referred to an Immigration Court, which then fully reviews their asylum application. The credible fear interviews are conducted by Asylum Officers, and because they are detained at government expense, the young people are given priority over other (non-detained) asylum seekers. Because the Asylum Division must devote resources to these credible fear interviews, they have been unable to keep up with the more traditional asylum cases. Hence, the backlog.

I keep expecting the number of young people coming here to wane, but so far that has not been the case. Indeed, the number of people coming from Central America this year is nearly identical to the numbers we saw last year. And given that summer is traditionally a busier time for migration from Central America, we can expect more young people to arrive at our border in the next few months. Thus, it seems likely that the backlogged cases will keep piling up.


According to the latest statistics, the least backlogged offices are Houston (3,971 backlogged cases), Arlington (5,791), and Chicago (6,485). The most backlogged office is Los Angeles (17,042), followed by Newark (14,924), New York (13,568), Miami (11,366), and San Francisco (9,028). Wait times in these offices roughly correlate with the number of cases backlogged, so Houston is currently the fastest office and Los Angeles is the slowest.


Of course, obtaining a (relatively) quick interview date is of little value if the case is denied. In terms of grant rates, the fastest offices are not necessarily the most likely to grant asylum. Although the statistics on this vary, the offices in Chicago, Houston, Miami, Newark, and New York all grant asylum less than 33% of the time. Arlington and Los Angeles grant about 50% of their cases, and San Francisco grants over 60% of its cases.


So what is the Asylum Division doing to address the backlog?


For one thing, they have been hiring more Asylum Officers. Since the backlog began in 2013, the number of staff members has increased by 90% and they continue to hire and train more officers. It appears that the Asylum Division will continue to add new officers through 2016. So if--and it is a big if--we see a drop in credible fear interviews at the border, the asylum offices should be well positioned to make some progress on the backlog.


The Asylum Division is also making an effort to keep the public more informed about the backlog. For some months now, there has been discussion about providing more information about processing times at the different asylum offices (for example, the Arlington, Virginia office is currently interviewing cases from July 2013). Because workloads are unpredictable, the asylum offices do not know when they will interview an individual case, but they do know which cases they are processing now. By posting this information, at least asylum seekers will have some idea about where they stand in the queue (the Department of State has a similar system for family- and employment-based immigration visas).


The asylum offices have also created some very limited ways to expedite cases. I have discussed those here.


As an advocate for asylum seekers, of course I believe that more should be done. Most importantly, I would like to see the asylum offices give higher priority to people separated from their immediate relatives. I would also like to see more resources devoted to processing I-730 petitions, which allow approved asylum seekers to bring their spouses and children to the U.S. Also, given that asylum cases are moving slowly, I would like to see USCIS issue work permits (EADs) for two or more years, instead of just one year. Finally, I would like to see responsibility for credible fear interviews moved from the Asylum Division to a separate unit or--better yet--the elimination of credible fear interviews altogether (CFIs are basically rubber stamps and thus a waste of resources; it would be better if such cases were adjudicated in the first instance by an Immigration Judge).


The Asylum Division is faced with a very difficult--if not impossible--task: To continue adjudicating asylum cases while dealing with an unpredictable and overwhelming number of credible fear cases, all the while, with a hostile Congress looking for excuses to reduce asylum protections. For the sake of our asylum system and those who need protection, I hope they can navigate these treacherous waters.

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