Protection Postponed: Asylum Office Backlogs Cause Suffering, Separate Families, and Undermine Integration
The Biden Administration has inherited a large and growing backlog of asylum claims. As of September 2020, more than 386,000 applications were awaiting adjudication by the Asylum Division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This backlog exploded under the Obama Administration, which increased the use of expedited removal and redirected asylum officers from adjudicating asylum cases to instead conduct fear screenings. Over the past four years, the backlog continued to grow as the Trump Administration diverted Asylum Division resources to block and turn back refugees seeking U.S. asylum protection – in violation of U.S. laws and treaty obligations.
As a result, refugees face catastrophic, years-long delays to receive an asylum interview. Although U.S. law requires the government to conduct asylum interviews within 45 days of filing, many asylum seekers – including those who filed applications during the Obama Administration – have waited years. They are trapped in legal limbo without permanent status and are often subjected to prolonged separation from their families, including many who are living in danger abroad. While waiting, asylum seekers are often unable to pursue educational opportunities or secure employment, all the while living in fear that they could be deported to persecution or torture.
The backlog coincides with record levels of global refugee displacement. At the end of 2020, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that more than 26 million refugees were displaced worldwide, including refugees from Cameroon, Central African Republic, China, El Salvador, Eritrea, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Russia, Syria, South Sudan, Venezuela, and Yemen, as political repression, civil conflicts, and other violence forced people to flee their homes in search of protection. For instance, since 2014, political violence in Venezuela has led to an 8,000 percent increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking refugee protection worldwide, with over 100,000 Venezuelans seeking refuge in the United States. Since September 2016, Venezuelans have filed more affirmative asylum applications each month with USCIS than asylum seekers of any other nationality.
Despite these acute needs, U.S. policies and practices are forcing more asylum seekers to wait even longer to receive protection as Asylum Division resources are diverted to implement harsh and flawed border policies, including the expansive use of expedited removal. In fiscal years (FY) 2016 and 2019, an astounding 89 percent of asylum officers were temporarily reassigned from adjudicating affirmative asylum to other duties, including screenings for asylum seekers placed in expedited removal as well as those subjected to the Trump Administration’s illegal policies to block refugees at the southern border, such as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and Asylum Cooperative Agreements (ACA).
At the same time, USCIS’s decision to prioritize more recent applicants – the so-called “last in, first out” (LIFO) policy – has failed to reduce the backlog, essentially freezing those already waiting for interviews while adding new asylum seekers to the backlog each year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the backlog has continued to expand and wait times have grown even longer.
This report, which builds on Human Rights First’s prior research, examines the human impact of the backlog through interviews with our asylum clients who have been waiting years for asylum office interviews. It also analyzes government policies and data to explain underlying causes of the backlog, challenges it poses, and opportunities to resolve it.