Barriers and Backlog: Asylum Office Delays Continue to Cause Harm
By Cora Wright, Legal Fellow, Refugee Protection & Refugee Representation
Nony (a pseudonym) has been waiting for an interview with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum office for nearly six years. In 2016, Nony fled Yemen, after she was nearly killed because of her sexual orientation. She applied for asylum in January 2017 on her own and has been waiting ever since. Pro bono attorneys through Human Rights First recently took on her case to try to push for a faster resolution.
At first, Nony found it hard to adjust: “you’re thinking of how to improve your English, dealing with a new culture, figuring out all the rules in the United States, because you don’t want to make a mistake and have them kick you out, and you’re thinking over your life before, whether you made any mistakes that they could kick you out over, and that was just the beginning.” Now, she has learned English, figured out the culture, and made New Jersey a home, but the anxiety that she could be forced to return to the place she fled has not left, and in fact has only worsened.
Finally getting an asylum office interview is both Nony’s dream and a potential nightmare. She is desperate to move forward, to get permanent status, and to stop living in an awful limbo that has been devastating for her mental health. But she has heard horror stories about other people fleeing for their lives rejected at their asylum office interview after waiting years, paying their taxes, and beginning to carve out a new life in the United States. “There’s so much pressure and anxiety building – it was already there from when I escaped my home country – but it keeps building. I was 31 when I came here. Soon, I’m going to be 40. I wish they would just tell me yes or no, instead of making me spend so many years in a country. I feel this is my country, my home. I’ve given it my loyalty; I’ve given it years of my life. It’s not fair.”
The backlog of asylum claims grew under the Obama administration and reached a then-record high under the Trump administration, as harsh border policies, lack of sufficient staffing in the Asylum Division, and flawed security screenings exacerbated the problem. In 2021, the Biden administration inherited a daunting backlog of 394,000 cases. As of March 2022, that now stands at more than 470,000 pending applications. The backlog continues to grow with COVID-19 precautions limiting the number of interviews that can be completed and Asylum Division resources diverted to fear screenings for the court-ordered reimplementation of the Trump-era Remain in Mexico policy as well as continued use of expedited removal.
When Human Rights First published the report “Protection Postponed” on the USCIS asylum backlog in April 2021, our clients with applications stuck in the asylum office backlog had been waiting for more than four years on average for an interview. Now, that wait has grown to over six years. The desperation of those waiting for interviews continues to mount. As Nony noted, “…coming to America, I thought it was like going to find someone to give you a big hug and make you feel safe. That was my dream. But America is not going to give you a huge hug and feel safe. They’re going to give you frustration, anxiety, and an unhealthy life full of stress.”
The legal limbo of the backlog interferes with asylum seekers’ ability to continue their education, find good jobs, and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.
In 2021, Nony began a master’s program in human rights—a dream she could not pursue in her country because her family had forbidden her from studying. “God created me to get a good job and help people,” she said. But Nony had to pay for each class with a credit card because her lack of permanent immigration status as an asylum seeker means that she is ineligible for scholarships. She had to pause her studies to save up to pay for more classes. Nony paid for her masters with a series of jobs in grocery stores, retail, and as a receptionist. Some exploited her. One boss paid her $200 for seven full days of work. Nony now has a better job at a bank, but she had to push to be hired. The bank didn’t want to hire someone who might have to leave the country.
Isaac (a pseudonym), a refugee from Egypt represented by Human Rights First, was also unable to partake in educational opportunities while stuck in the asylum backlog for five years. He could not join any of the master’s programs in journalism that he had been accepted into because his lack of permanent status made him ineligible for student loans. Thankfully, Isaac was recently granted asylum. But he must retake (and pay again for) standardized tests to reapply for the same schools. “Being granted asylum put hope inside me again. For years, I had no hope for these issues, about bettering my English, my master’s degree, seeing my mother again, even marriage. Now it feels like I have options again…but it is like I wasted five years.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has repeatedly acknowledged backlogs as “perhaps the greatest issue facing USCIS and its stakeholders.” In November 2021, 40 members of Congress wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and USCIS Director Ur Jaddou expressing concern about the affirmative asylum application backlog, including how long wait times can be traumatic for asylum seekers within the United States and the harms faced by separated family members who remain exposed to danger in their home countries.
For Nony, the seemingly never-ending wait has been severely mentally taxing. Twice she has been close to suicide. Nony’s mother, who also fled after helping Nony escape, is now living in assisted care in a different country. Without asylum, Nony cannot visit her mother, who is too sick to travel to the United States. Nony said she feels she is “going to die of guilt if my mom dies before I can see her again.”
In fiscal year (FY) 2022, USCIS received $275 million in additional funding from Congress to reduce the affirmative asylum backlog. President Biden’s proposed FY 2023 budget requested $765 million for USCIS to efficiently process increasing asylum caseloads and improve refugee processing. To make use of this expanded budgetary support, USCIS should ensure new asylum officers are dedicated to resolving cases in the backlog, prioritizing applications pending the longest; initiate a process for asylum seekers stuck in the backlog to request prompt interviews; and adopt other recommendations to make the asylum process more timely and less-traumatizing.