Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum
, 07-09-2015 at 10:30 AM (3696 Views)
The Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman recently released its 2015 annual report to Congress. The report discusses all aspects of USCIS operations, and provides some new information about the asylum backlog and the government's efforts to improve the situation.
- To resolve the backlog, each Asylum Officer will have to complete 243 cases. Ugh.
You may already be familiar with the Ombudsman's office--they are the ones who provide individual case assistance to affirmative asylum seekers and other USCIS "customers" (as they are called). They are also tasked with improving the quality of USCIS services by making recommendations to improve the administration of immigration benefits. The annual report includes these recommendations.
In this posting, I want to discuss a few of the report's findings that relate to asylum. Also, I will discuss the steps USCIS is taking to address the asylum backlog, and some recommendations for future improvements.
First, some findings. The report summarizes where we are now:
A substantial backlog of affirmative asylum applications pending before USCIS has led to lengthy case processing times for tens of thousands of asylum seekers. Spikes in requests for reasonable and credible fear determinations, which have required the agency to redirect resources away from affirmative asylum adjudications, along with an uptick in new affirmative asylum filings, are largely responsible for the backlog and processing delays. Although USCIS has taken various measures to address these pending asylum cases, such as hiring additional staff, modifying scheduling priorities, and introducing new efficiencies into credible and reasonable fear adjudications, the backlog continues to mount.
All this, we already know, but here are some numbers: At the end of FY 2011 (September 30, 2011), there were 9,274 affirmative asylum cases pending before USCIS. By the end of December 2014, that figure reached 73,103—an increase of over 700 percent (by May 2015, the number had grown to over 85,000 cases).
Probably the main reason for the backlog is the large numbers of asylum seekers arriving at the Southern border from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. When someone arrives at the border and requests asylum, an Asylum Officer gives the applicant a reasonable fear interview or a credible fear interview (if the person "passes" the interview, she will generally be sent to Immigration Court, where a Judge will determine whether she qualifies for asylum). In FY 2011, there were a total of 14,627 such interviews. In FY 2014, there were 60,085 - a four-fold increase. The Ombudsman notes that, "Various factors have contributed to this rapid rise in credible and reasonable fear submissions, including widespread crime and violence in Central America, where a majority of the applicants originate." The report continues:
These substantial increases demand considerable USCIS personnel and resources. For example, many Asylum Offices now send officers to various detention facilities around the nation to conduct credible and reasonable fear interviews. Such assignments deplete resources previously dedicated to affirmative asylum applications.
Another reason for the backlog is that the rate of new affirmative asylum filings has grown. "In FY 2011, asylum seekers filed 35,067 affirmative asylum applications with USCIS." "In FY 2014, asylum seekers filed 56,912 affirmative asylum applications, a 62 percent increase."
In addition, between September 2013 and December 2014, the number of "Unaccompanied Alien Children" with cases before USCIS increased from 868 to 4,221. These cases receive priority over backlogged adult applicants.
So what has USCIS done to address the delay?
First, the Asylum Division has been hiring more Asylum Officers. In 2013, there were 203 officers; by January 2015, there were 350, and the Asylum Division has authorization to elevate its total number of Asylum Officer positions to 448. Unfortunately, Asylum Officers do not stay in their jobs very long. The average tenure is only 14 months. One reason for the low retention rate may be that the Asylum Officer position does not have great promotional potential. Salaries start in the low $50-thousands and max out at less than $100,000. By comparison, lawyers who work in other areas of the federal government can earn more than $150,000 per year (and salaries in the private sector can be much higher).
Second, starting in late December 2014, USCIS now interviews cases on a "first-in, first-out" basis, meaning that the oldest cases are interviewed first. There is concern that such a system will encourage people to file frivolous cases in order to get a work permit while their cases are pending, but so far, we really do not know if that is happening.
Third, in May 2015, USCIS announced that it would begin publishing estimated wait times for asylum interviews at the different Asylum Offices. Supposedly, they will provide an approximate timetable—roughly a two to three-month range—within which the interview will take place. We have been hearing about this idea for some time, and hopefully, USCIS will post this information soon.
Finally, "USCIS has implemented a range of policy and procedural changes in the credible and reasonable fear contexts that have had the effect of shortening case processing times." For example, more interviews are conducted telephonically, as opposed to in-person, which helps save the Asylum Officer's time. Of course, shortcuts potentially affect the quality of the decision-making, and USCIS is monitoring this. Personally, given that the large majority of applicants "pass" their credible and reasonable fear interviews, I think it would save time to eliminate the interviews altogether, and allow anyone to submit an asylum application and go directly to court.
The report also lists two ways to potentially accelerate the interview date: (1) interview expedite requests; and (2) interview "Short Lists:"
First, each Asylum Office accepts and evaluates requests for expedited interviews, granting or denying those requests based on humanitarian factors, such as documented medical exigencies, as well as the Asylum Office’s available resources. Depending on the Asylum Office, applicants may make these requests in-person or via email. Some Asylum Offices also maintain Short Lists, containing the names of backlogged applicants who have volunteered to make themselves available for interviews scheduled on short notice due to unforeseen interview cancellations or other developments. Backlogged applicants may wish to contact their local Asylum Office to inquire about the availability of such a list.
I discussed these ideas, and a few others, here.
Lastly, I want to briefly discuss the report's findings related to delays obtaining Employment Authorization Documents ("EADs"). The main point of interest here is that the delays are seasonal. For various reasons, EAD applications filed during the summer months take longer. This means--if possible--try to file for or renew your EAD outside the busy season. To me, there is an easy solution to this problem, at least as far as asylum seekers are concerned: USCIS should make the EAD valid for two years instead of one, or better yet, tie the EAD to the asylum application, so it is valid for the duration of the case. I have discussed problems and suggestions for improvement in the EAD process here.
Perhaps it provides some comfort to asylum seekers to know that the U.S. government is trying to reduce the backlog and move their cases along. If you are interested to learn more, take a look at the full report.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.