New Guidelines for Asylum Processing Will Harm Refugees Stuck in the Backlog
New York City—Human Rights First warned that changes announced today by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to process asylum applications in reverse order—with the newest claims processed first—will impose additional burdens and suffering on legitimate asylum seekers who have already waited years for their asylum interviews. The announcement today directs USCIS to prioritize applications pending 21 days or less, stating that the change is meant to “stem the growth” of the asylum backlog.
“This change will impose even more suffering on the many refugees who have already been waiting —in some cases up to four years—for their asylum interviews. While the asylum office backlog is a real concern, the agency’s announcement reflects no process to ensure timely interviews for the many asylum seekers who have been desperately awaiting their asylum interviews so they can, after their grant of asylum, bring their children and spouses to safety or take other critical steps to care for their families,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “We urge USCIS to ensure a fair process for those asylum seekers with pressing humanitarian needs—such as children stranded abroad and those with medical concerns—to request and receive a timely interview.”
Human Rights First has reported on the growing backlog in the Asylum Division, which began to grow in the wake of the Obama Administration’s decision to expand its use of expedited removal processing. According to information released regularly by USCIS, some of the nation’s eight asylum offices were processing asylum claims in December 2017 that had been filed as long ago as June 2013—leaving asylum seekers in a state of limbo for over four years. Many asylum seekers have family members stranded in dangerous conditions overseas as they await the adjudication of their claim. Human Rights First has long urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to increase asylum office staffing and roll back the expanded use of expedited removal, which requires the diversion of asylum office staff to conduct the protection component of the summary removal processing.
The backlog in the U.S. asylum system follows a global increase in displacement, which has reached record highs as wars, conflict, and persecution are causing more people to flee their homes. Venezuelans have been the top nationality seeking protection with the U.S. Asylum Division for more than a year, with 1,640 applicants in the month of September 2017 alone. The targeted violence of transnational criminal organizations in Central America’s Northern Triangle— Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—has led to a significant increase in protection requests in the United States, as well as in other countries in the region. For example, Costa Rica saw a 222 percent increase in asylum applicants between 2014 and 2016, and Mexico saw a 156 percent increase from 2015 to 2016 alone.
“Like other Trump Administration talking points relating to asylum, the USCIS announcement of this change is misleading in its attempt to link the increase in asylum applications to fraud,” added Acer. “The disingenuous narrative USCIS paints of fraud and abuse in the asylum system is clearly exposed by the statement’s glaring failure to even acknowledge the regional refugee and displacement crisis that contributed to the uptick in legitimate asylum claims from people fleeing Central America and Venezuela.”
As a leading legal service provider for refugees seeking asylum in the United States, Human Rights First can attest to the large number of legitimate asylum claims caught up in the asylum backlog. Many of the pro bono clients represented by Human Rights First and its pro bono lawyers have been waiting years for their asylum interviews or hearings. During this wait time, many suffer from prolonged family separation, difficulties accessing education and other hardships, and many of their children are left stranded for years in difficult and dangerous situations abroad.