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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Some (Unsolicited) Advice for the Asylum Office

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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.

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