“I Felt Not Seen, Not Heard”
Gaps in Disability Access at USCIS for People Seeking Protection
People seeking asylum in the United States navigate a complex process to apply for asylum and present their case, with potentially life-threatening consequences if they are denied protection and ordered deported. Under federal law and regulations, government agencies must ensure that asylum seekers with disabilities1 have a meaningful opportunity to apply for asylum, receive reasonable accommodations to enable them to participate in the process, and do not face disability discrimination at any stage of their asylum proceedings. However, the United States has a long history of detaining and deporting people with disabilities without a meaningful opportunity to present their case.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) handles a range of asylum matters, including adjudicating many asylum applications, conducting preliminary fear screenings for people placed in the expedited removal process, and obtaining biometrics to run background and security checks. For example, people in the United States who are not in deportation proceedings may apply for asylum with USCIS (referred to as applying “affirmatively”), while those in deportation proceedings may apply for asylum before the immigration court (which is part of a separate federal agency). USCIS also adjudicates the asylum applications of unaccompanied children regardless of whether they are in deportation proceedings.
Some asylum seekers are placed in “expedited removal” when they seek protection at U.S. borders or airports and must pass a “credible fear interview” (CFI) with USCIS to avoid summary deportation and have an opportunity to apply for asylum.
The Rehabilitation Act requires USCIS to ensure disability access and provide reasonable accommodations throughout these different processes, while the Constitution guarantees due process in these proceedings.
Pursuant to federal disability laws, regulations, and mandates from DHS, USCIS has recently taken important steps to establish a disability access plan, implement procedures for requesting reasonable accommodations, and provide disability accommodations trainings to employees. These measures are critical, but gaps remain in the agency’s compliance with the Rehabilitation Act and Constitutional due process protections.
Despite the steps USCIS has taken, some people with disabilities continue to face discrimination and barriers as they navigate the asylum process at USCIS, as documented in this report. These barriers include: denials of reasonable accommodations; hostile, discriminatory, and inappropriate interview questions; and denials of protection without a meaningful opportunity to seek asylum.
To ensure USCIS compliance with federal law, Human Rights First recommends urgent steps to improve disability access. DHS and USCIS should take steps to:
- Designate disability access coordinators in each asylum office and make their contact information publicly available and easily accessible;
- Provide increased and regular disability training for USCIS asylum officers and other staff;
- Clarify and expand existing USCIS guidance on disability access including strengthening the process for requesting reasonable accommodations and appealing denials; and
- Create policy requiring asylum officers to affirmatively inquire into whether an applicant has a disability during both asylum adjudication and credible fear interviews, engage in an informal, interactive process to provide accommodations, and ensure that people with disabilities are taken out of the expedited removal process and given an opportunity to apply for asylum.
Human Rights First’s full recommendations are included below in this report’s recommendations section. The organization has also issued detailed recommendations to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) with respect to access for people with disabilities in U.S. immigration courts.
This report is based on research conducted by Human Rights First between September 2022 and August 2023, including 39 interviews with attorneys, advocates, and people seeking asylum, and information on 86 immigrants with disabilities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Washington D.C., and Virginia who participated in credible fear interviews, asylum office interviews, or biometrics appointments; publicly available government documents; civil rights violations complaints; published investigations by other human rights organizations; and media reports.