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In November 2012, we received a “recommended approval” from the Asylum Office for one of my Afghan clients–we’ll call him Dave, though as you might guess, that is not his real name.

Grant or grant not. There is no try.

Grant or grant not. There is no try.

We were pleased with the news. Dave had worked for the United Nations and as a contractor for USAID- and NATO-funded agencies in Afghanistan. The Taliban became aware of his work and threatened him. They contacted him by phone. They said he was an infidel and an American spy. They told him, “We are watching you. We know everything about you and your family. We know where you are.” A bearded stranger approached his children after school and tried to lure them away from their classmates. The threats escalated and so Dave decided to seek asylum in the U.S.

Dave had a United States visa, but his wife and children did not, so he came alone, in the hope that this would end the threats and that his family members could follow him later.

In those days–before the asylum backlog–cases moved more quickly. We filed the case in September 2012. Dave was interviewed the next month and received his recommended approval in November. So far, so good (but as Megadeth might say, “so what?”).

But what does it mean, this “recommended approval?” A person receives a recommended approval if the Asylum Office has determined that she is eligible for asylum, but for some reason the decision cannot yet be issued. The Asylum Office generally won’t give the reason why they cannot issue the decision, but in most cases, it seems to be because the security background check is not complete.

So what is the “security background check,” you ask. Every asylum applicant has their biometric and biographic data checked against several government data bases to determine if they might be terrorists or criminals. While these checks never seem to cause delay in Immigration Court cases (defensive asylum cases), they can take a long time for Asylum Office cases (affirmative asylum cases). Why is that? I don’t know. I asked once at a USCIS meeting, and they said it was because there are different checks at the Court and at the Asylum Office. I’ve never found anyone who could explain why the two agencies (DOJ and DHS) use different background checks, and because security issues are hush-hush, I doubt I’ll ever get a good answer on this point.

So Dave’s case was delayed while we waited for the final approval. In those pre-backlog days, the one benefit of a recommended approval was that the applicant could immediately apply for an EAD–an employment authorization document. In general, if an asylum applicant does not have a decision within 150 days of filing, he can apply for an EAD. With the current backlog, nobody gets a decision in 150 days and so everyone applies for the EAD. Prior to the backlog, many people received decisions in less than five months; others–like Dave–received a recommended approval in less than 150 days. Such people could immediately apply for the EAD. Dave applied for his EAD.

For asylum applicants with a recommended approval, the worst part about waiting is the uncertainty. When will the Asylum Office issue the final approval? Might something change so that the case is denied? For people separated from family members, the uncertainty and loneliness is extremely stressful.

As the months passed, our initial happiness with Dave’s recommended approval began to fade. When would the final decision come? I periodically made inquiries to the Asylum Office. We never received a substantive reply.

Then Dave’s wife got sick. He was worried about her, and worried about his children, but he decided to stay in the U.S. and hopefully get a decision soon. More time passed.

A year after we received the recommended approval, one of Dave’s children became seriously ill. We notified the Asylum Office and again requested a decision. We got no response. But Dave continued to wait and hope that he would receive his final approval so he could bring his family to safety.

The days and weeks and months continued to pass. Finally, as we reached the two-year anniversary of Dave’s recommended approval, he called me and told me that he had decided to return to Afghanistan. His children were suffering from health issues and he had not seen them (except via Skype) for more than two years. He was giving up on his asylum case and returning to his family, and to the danger.

So what can we learn from Dave’s story? My feeling about the whole fiasco is that Dave would have been far better off if the Asylum Office had simply denied his case in November 2012 rather than issue a recommended approval. Under U.S. law, a person does not have a duty to rescue another who is in danger. However, if a person undertakes a rescue, he is obligated not to act negligently. The U.S. has created a system for asylum. People like Dave rely on that system. In this case, the system failed Dave, and–at least for him–the lure of asylum and of safety created by the asylum system cost him and his family dearly: Two-plus years with his wife and children lost, other options for safety missed, savings exhausted.

There is an ironic denouement to the story. A few months after Dave left the U.S. and 2.5 years after the recommended approval, the Asylum Office sent a notice to get fingerprinted: “Please process the fingerprints as quickly as possible,” the note advised. Was this a cruel joke? I tried to have the fingerprints done at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, but they could not (or would not) do it. We have still not heard from the Asylum Office about Dave’s case. I suppose it remains pending, but who knows? When last I emailed Dave (about the fingerprints), he replied, “I still have hope and… I am hopeful.”

{ 7 comments }

What Is “Persecution”?

by Jason Dzubow on August 18, 2015

in Federal Courts

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Language is intensely personal. When I say the word “house,” I have one image in mind, and when you hear it, you have your own image in mind. Indeed, every person on Earth who hears the word “house” will have his own mental image of what that means. Despite all this, we manage to communicate.

The "comfy chair" constitutes persecution only in the Ninth Circuit.

The “comfy chair” constitutes persecution only in the Ninth Circuit.

But when we move from interpersonal communication to the more precise language of the courts, the problem becomes more acute. Perhaps it was best summed up by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously declined to define the term “pornography.” Instead, he stated, “I know it when I see it” (less well-known was his next line: “And I enjoy seeing it at least twice a day”).

In asylum law, we have a similar problem–not with pornography, heaven forbid–but with another “p” word: “persecution.”

“Persecution” is not defined by statute, and the Board of Immigration Appeals–the agency tasked with interpreting the immigration law–has failed to provide much useful guidance (as usual). And so the buck has been passed to the various federal circuit courts.

A recent article by Scott Rempell, an Associate Professor at South Texas College of Law/Houston, surveys the landscape with regards to definitions of “persecution.” Prof. Rempell finds that while certain conduct is universally viewed as persecution, there exists “staggering inconsistencies” between the various federal appeals courts: “eleven different appellate courts independently pass judgment on EOIR’s assessments of whether harm rises to the level of persecution—a significant number of spoons stirring the persecution pot.” The study revealed what Prof. Rempell calls an “unequivocal chasm” in the consistency of persecution decisions:

For example, the results [of the study] illustrate how a one-day detention involving electric shock compelled a finding of persecution, while a ten-day detention involving electric shock did not. Similarly, while several weeks of psychological suffering necessarily established persecution, several years of even greater psychological suffering failed to cross the persecution threshold.

To those of us who have litigated these cases in the federal courts, Prof. Rempell’s observation rings all-too true. But quantifying the problem is quite difficult because, as Prof. Rempell notes, the cases are so fact-specific:

Courts… compare and contrast to previous persecution cases. And due to differing opinions on what the harm threshold should be, panels are free to emphasize or deemphasize any factual nuance they choose between the cases that they are reviewing and previous cases they have decided.

Despite this problem, the article attempts to categorize the different types of harm and discern areas of consistency and inconsistency. Prof. Rempell finds five broad areas of consistency–conduct that all courts consider persecution:

(1) Brutal and systematic abuse, where the applicant has sustained harm on a consistent basis over a prolonged period of time; (2) Sufficiently Recurrent Combination of Cumulatively Severe Harms, where there is an ongoing pattern of physical, psychological, and other types of harm, as long as the harms cumulatively establish a sufficiently high level of severity; (3) Recurrent Injury Preceding a Harm Crescendo, where there are multiple incidents of relatively severe harm that culminates in particularly egregious harm; (4) Sufficient Harm Preceding a Substantiated Flight Precipitator, where a series of harmful events culminates in a credible and substantial threat of harm, causing the applicant to flee; and (5) Sufficiently Severe or Recurring Sexual Abuse.

The problem with this list (aside from the fact that I did not give you all the details of the Professor’s analysis) is pretty obvious–we are stuck using words to describe harm, and this is difficult. One person’s idea of “brutal and systematic abuse” may not be the same as the next person’s. Nevertheless, the list gives us the broad parameters of what constitutes persecution in all federal courts.

When the persecution is less severe–as it is in most contested cases–things become even more tricky. Prof. Rempell identifies four areas where the appellate courts produce inconsistent decisions:

(1) A single instance of physical abuse and detention; (2) Psychological harm where there is a single fear-inducing incident; (3) Psychological harm where there are continuous fear-inducing incidents; and (4) “Other Harm Inconsistencies,” where courts looked at similar incidents and reached opposite conclusions concerning persecution.

The disparities between judges and circuits when it comes to determining persecution are stark. For example, the First Circuit (New England) reversed the BIA’s persecution finding in just 5% of cases. The Ninth Circuit (California, et al) reversed the BIA’s findings in 65% of cases.

Prof. Rempell attributes much of the disparity to “the way courts interpret the meaning of persecution, and how they characterize and measure harm.” “The fact that decades of adjudications involving over a million asylum claims have failed to yield a consistent approach on the systematic harm question is nothing short of astounding.” So what’s to be done? 

The article suggests some preliminary reforms, but the bottom line is this: Immigration agencies–and specifically the Board of Immigration Appeals–need to provide “guiding principles” on what constitutes persecution. Of course these inquiries are fact specific, and of course it is difficult to quantify physical or psychological harm, but as Prof. Rempell says, the “fact-intensive nature of persecution inquiries… should not act as a shield to prevent the creation of general severity principles, by means of regulation or adjudication.”

As a lawyer who frequently encounters the question “What is persecution?,” I believe Prof. Rempell’s article is important. He has quantified a problem that we have all experienced in our practice. Now it’s time for the BIA to do something about it.

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For some time now, we’ve been hearing from the Asylum Division that they would post a “Scheduling Bulletin” to give affirmative asylum seekers a better idea about wait times. Well, the Bulletin has finally arrived, which is–in a sense–good news. But it’s also bad news, since now we see exactly how slowly things are progressing at most asylum offices.

First off, if you’re curious about the status of your asylum office, check out the Bulletin here. What you’ll see is a breakdown of each asylum office and which cases they are currently interviewing (as of July 2015). So, for example, in July 2015, the Arlington Asylum Office was interviewing cases originally filed in August 2013. The chart also lists which cases each office was interviewing over the past few months, so you can see how quickly (or not) each office is moving through its cases.

Most geologists agree: The asylum offices are moving pretty quickly (except for Los Angeles).

Most geologists agree: The asylum offices are moving pretty quickly (except for Los Angeles).

Reviewing the Bulletin, a few things jump out at me. First, and most distressing, cases are moving very slowly at most asylum offices, and a few offices–notably Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami–have made no discernible progress in the last four months. One mitigating factor here is that it’s summer, a time when the Southern border is particularly busy. Hopefully, once the number of asylum seekers arriving at the border wanes (as it generally does in autumn), the asylum offices will start interviewing more backlogged cases (if you are not familiar with the “asylum backlog,” please see this posting).

Another point worth noting is that the two asylum offices with jurisdiction over the Southern border states–Los Angeles and Houston–represent the slowest and the fastest offices, respectively. Los Angeles is currently interviewing cases filed in August 2011 (which is slower than I realized–I had thought they were interviewing cases from 2012) and they have been stuck on the August 2011 cases for the last four months. On the other hand, Houston, Texas is the fastest asylum office. They are interviewing cases filed in April 2014, though they have made almost no progress in the last four months either. What’s strange is that there is such disparity along the Southern border. I do not know why resources cannot be distributed more evenly to give some relief to asylum seekers at the LA office.

The only asylum office that has shown significant movement over the last four months is New York. In April 2015, the NY asylum office was interviewing cases filed in January 2013. By July 2015, they were interviewing cases filed in June/July 2013. Newark, New Jersey has also done reasonably well, advancing from December 2012 to April 2013 during the same period.

Rescheduled cases and cases involving children (many of the asylum seekers at the Southern border are children) receive priority over “regular” asylum cases. And according to the Bulletin, the asylum offices in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Miami have had many such cases. Presumably this explains the lack of progress in those asylum offices.

Finally, for people with cases pending at one of the sub offices, the Bulletin notes that it “currently does not include asylum interviews occurring outside of the eight asylum offices or the Boston sub-office (e.g. interviews occurring on circuit rides).” “Asylum offices schedule circuit ride interviews as resources permit.” The Bulletin suggests that applicants contact the “asylum office with jurisdiction over your case for more detailed information” about the schedule at sub offices. You can find contact information for each asylum office here.

So there you have it. The Bulletin will be updated monthly so you can track how quickly each asylum office is moving through the backlog. Though the current situation is discouraging, at least the Bulletin provides some information about where we stand now, and maybe some hope for those who are waiting.

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My associate Ruth Dickey continues her review of data from our cases filed at the Arlington Asylum Office. She reports her findings here:

One of the biggest sources of client frustration is delay after the asylum interview. Clients are often separated from family members who remain in danger. They feel as though the future is uncertain, and they see no end in sight to their ordeal. The lack of a final decision is stressful and depressing.

Attorneys also face stress and extra work due to delayed decisions. For example, we repeatedly contact the Asylum Office about our clients’ cases, we answer client questions, and we renew employment authorization documents. We have resisted charging more money for this extra work, but it makes operating a business very difficult. Also, we have almost no power to make the decisions arrive faster, and so we feel the stress of our clients’ frustration without being able to do much about it.  

Looking at data from 136 of our cases—filed in 2013 and 2014 in the Arlington, Virginia Asylum Office—we can see that about one-third of the cases have been interviewed but are still awaiting decisions. The charts below compare cases filed in 2013 with cases filed in 2014:

Chart A1

 

ChartA2

The Arlington Asylum Office is working through cases filed in 2013. But unfortunately, it is moving very slowly—we currently have no cases scheduled for interviews in Arlington.

The Asylum Office generally has a goal of issuing its decision two weeks after the interview takes place. Our data shows that they usually do not meet this goal. Of our interviewed cases, only about 1-in-5 applicants received a decision within two weeks of the interview:

Chart A3

For clients who have been interviewed and have received decisions, wait times vary widely. The median wait time for 2013 and 2014 cases was 34 days – but ranged up to 719 days (and keep in mind that this does not include data from people who have been interviewed and who are currently waiting for a decision). The following chart shows the wait time until a decision was made, by interview date:

Chart A4

Of course, dozens of our clients have not gotten decisions yet, and so we do not know how long they will ultimately wait.

As the next chart shows, we currently have several clients who have been waiting over a year for a decision, and a few who have been waiting for more than two years. If these clients’ information were added to the chart above, it would tell an even more dismal story since they have already waited far longer than the median wait time for cases where a decision was issued.

Chart A5

Lastly, let’s look at recommended approvals. Recommended approvals are issued in cases where the Asylum Office is convinced that a case meets the standard for asylum, but the background check is not yet complete. People with recommended approvals can apply for employment authorization, but cannot sponsor their family members who are waiting to join them in the U.S. The following chart shows how long our clients have waited from the date of the recommended approval to the date of the final decision (never mind how long they might have already waited to get the recommended approval). Information about people who have received recommended approvals and who are still waiting for their final decisions are also shown in the same chart:

Chart A6

Despite making numerous inquiries about our pending cases, we have never received a specific answer as to why delays occur. Usually, the Asylum Office informs us that the delay is due to the security background check. However, it is unclear why the background checks take so long for affirmative asylum seekers, but do not cause delays for other applicants seeking benefits from USCIS. Interestingly, asylum seekers in Immigration Court do not face these types of delays either, even when they come from conflict zones or countries where terrorism is a concern. Only affirmative asylum seekers seem subject to these inordinate delays.

Can we draw general conclusions about the operation of the Arlington Asylum Office based on our data? It is difficult to say. Many of our clients come from places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where security-background-check delays are more burdensome. Also, our sample size is relatively small. Nevertheless, our findings comport with what we hear from other attorneys and applicants with cases in Arlington (and other asylum offices).

Since the backlog began in 2013, the Asylum Division has been working to improve the situation by hiring more officers and modifying some of its procedures. We are hopeful that the asylum system will continue to change to better meet applicants’ needs. Until then, we will continue to analyze data from our cases.

{ 25 comments }

Lawyers vs. Clients

by Jason Dzubow on July 24, 2015

in Legal

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Presenting an asylum case to an Immigration Judge or an Asylum Officer can be tricky business. There are an infinite number of ways to tell the story: How much detail to include, what to keep out, how to deal with derogatory facts. Not surprisingly, sometimes lawyers and their clients have different ideas about how the case should look. So what happens when lawyers and clients disagree?

CYA

CYA

First, we should acknowledge that there are areas where the lawyer’s interest and the client’s interest are in harmony, and other areas where those interests diverge. For example, both the lawyer and the client want to win the case. They both would like to finish the case as quickly as possible. They both want a good relationship with the other.

There are also areas where the lawyer’s and the client’s interests differ. The lawyer often wants to do less work on the case, while the client wants the lawyer to do more work. The lawyer has to deal with many cases, but the client wants her case, and her phone calls and emails, to receive the highest priority. The lawyer has her own ideas about how the case should be presented; the client may have a different idea. For attorneys in private practice (like yours truly), the lawyer wants to charge more money; the client wants to pay less. A good (i.e., ethical) attorney generally puts his own interests behind those of his client, but only to an extent, and when discussing “lawyers vs. clients,” it is helpful to acknowledge that there are inherent tensions in the relationship.

Here, though, I am less interested in the tension related to workloads and fees, and more interested in conflicts that arise between the attorney and her client with regards to strategy—how to present the case. But that conflict does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it must be viewed in the context of all the other tensions inherent in the relationship, and—to make matters worse—it exists in the stressful environment of an asylum case, which can have life-changing implications for the client and her family. All this, we must keep in mind.

So what to do when the lawyer and the client cannot agree?

It happens to me periodically that I have a client who has his or her own idea about how a case should be presented, and that idea conflicts with what I think best. It is perhaps one of the downsides of experience, but the more cases I do, the less patience I have for clients who question my judgment. The problem with this attitude, of course, is that I am sometimes wrong, and if my experience blinds me to that fact, I am clearly disserving my client. For this reason, I try to practice humility and always carefully consider the client’s viewpoint. As the old prayer goes: “Lord, give me patience, and give it to me right now!”

Sometimes, however, the client is simply wrong about something: A “friend” told the client to hide her trip to Iran from the U.S. government; a person who is still legally married but separated wants to claim that he is single on an immigration form; someone with a criminal conviction wants to explain to the Judge that “it wasn’t my fault!” In cases like these, the lawyer needs explain the problem, and usually the client understands (the U.S. government probably already knows about the trip to Iran, so trying to hide it is a mistake; even though you are separated, you need to indicate “married” unless the marriage is terminated by death or divorce; the Judge wants to hear you take responsibility for the crime, apologize, and explain how you will not repeat the same mistake).

Other situations are more subtle: The client wants to add too much irrelevant information to her asylum affidavit, for example. In a situation like this, I explain my point of view (the fact-finder will become frustrated if they get bogged down in unimportant details and it will distract from the thrust of the case) and usually the client agrees. If not, as far as I am concerned, it’s the client’s case and ultimately it’s his decision to make. My concern is that the client’s decision is made knowingly (maybe this is why lawyers are called “counselors” and not “deciders”).

In cases where the client and I cannot agree, and where I think the client’s decision will negatively affect the outcome of the case, I write down my position and make the client sign it. It’s rare that I have to do this, but I want to have a record of what happened in case the client decides to blame me for losing the case (the technical term for this is CYA – “cover your ass”). Also, if I make the client sign such a document, it helps underscore the seriousness of the client’s decision, and hopefully dissuades him from harming his case.

My feeling is that it is better to avoid a conflict with the client before it begins. So what can be done to minimize conflicts related to case presentation?

The most obvious solution is communication, and this is primarily the lawyer’s responsibility. As lawyers, we need to be transparent about what we do. If we over-sell our services, and promise the client the moon and the stars, we really can’t complain when the client expects us to deliver. It’s the same with case presentation. The client needs to understand the lawyer’s role, and what the lawyer can and cannot do (we can’t help a client lie, for example). I find it helpful to show potential clients examples of my work, so they have an idea how their case will look at the end of the process. I also outline how we will prepare the case, what we need from the client, what my assistants will do, and what I will do. I also try to give them an idea about what we don’t know–primarily, how long the case will take, given the very long backlog. To paraphrase the old ad, a well educated client is our best customer.

For many–if not most–asylum seekers, the process is stressful and scary. They are separated from loved ones and living with great uncertainty. As lawyers, we absorb some of that stress. By communicating effectively with our clients, we can reduce their stress and our own, and we maximize the chances for a successful outcome in their case.

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My intrepid associate, Ruth Dickey, has been analyzing data from our cases filed at the Arlington Asylum Office during the past few years. She reports her findings here:

In December 2014, USCIS announced that it would address the asylum backlog in a new way: “First in, first out.” Prior to this new policy, the Asylum Offices were trying to complete as many cases as possible within 60 days. Cases that could not be interviewed within 60 days fell into the backlog. Over time, the number of cases entering the backlog grew and grew. Nationally, as of May 2015, over 85,000 applications are stuck in the backlog.

When we learned about the new “first in, first out” policy, we were hopeful that our oldest cases would be interviewed one after another in quick succession. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen—at least not yet (hope springs eternal, even for asylum lawyers). Let’s take a closer look at what is going on at the Arlington Asylum Office, the office where most of our cases are pending.

During 2013 and 2014, we filed 136 cases that are analyzed here (some cases—where the applicant moved to a different jurisdiction, for example—were excluded from the analysis in order not to skew the data). As you can see from the chart below, a large percentage of our cases fell into the backlog during those years, particularly during the second and third quarters of 2013. The low interview numbers in mid-2013 are likely due to the summer “border surge,” when many Central Americans started arriving at our Southern border and requesting asylum. The surge continued into 2014 and continues up until today. Especially in the beginning, USCIS was not prepared for the surge, and so we suspect the low interview numbers during the second and third quarters of 2013 are due to the government’s inability to deal with the sudden increase in applications.

Chart 1

As you can see in the next chart, a higher percentage of our cases were interviewed in 2014 than in 2013, suggesting that the Asylum Office was handling the volume more effectively. Even so, a significant portion of our cases—almost 40%—fell into the backlog in 2014. Given that the government has already interviewed the majority of cases from the fourth quarter of 2013 and from 2014, we are hopeful that once the Asylum Office reaches those cases, it will move through that portion of the backlog more quickly (the Arlington Asylum Office is currently interviewing cases filed in August 2013—about half way through the third quarter).

chart 2

Since the change to the “first in, first out” policy, things have been moving slowly in Arlington. Only 16 of our backlogged cases have been scheduled for interviews during the first six months of 2015. As a point of comparison, during the same period in 2014, we had exactly twice that many—32 cases—interviewed.

For those people in the backlog who have been scheduled for an interview in 2015 (since the implementation of the new policy), how long did they have to wait? From the date the application was received until the date of the interview, the median wait time was 678 days. The following chart shows the wait times (in days – on the vertical axis) for our clients who were interviewed in 2015. You can see that there is some variability in wait times:

The family that had to wait the longest—809 days—had been scheduled for an earlier interview, but was rescheduled because their file was apparently not in the Asylum Office (where it disappeared to, we don’t know). It took an additional four months to retrieve the file and get the interview. Hopefully, we won’t see this problem again. Another of the longer-delayed cases had been scheduled for an earlier interview, but was rescheduled by the Asylum Office without explanation. This happens periodically, and we even saw it on occasion in the good old days, prior to the backlog.

Once people are finally interviewed, how long does it take to get a decision? The Asylum Office generally tries to make decisions in two weeks. Of the 16 cases from 2015, eight have received decisions. Sixteen cases is a very small number, and so we can only draw limited conclusions from this data. However, the oldest case in the group of 16 has been languishing since January. And, unfortunately, this person is not alone. Many others who were interviewed in 2013 and 2014 are still waiting for their decisions.

So that is a look at what we know now. As we continue to analyze the data, we will post what we learn.

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The Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman recently released its 2015 annual report to Congress. The report discusses all aspects of USCIS operations, and provides some new information about the asylum backlog and the government’s efforts to improve the situation.

To resolve the backlog, each Asylum Officer will have to complete 243 cases. Ugh.

To resolve the backlog, each Asylum Officer will have to complete 243 cases. Ugh.

You may already be familiar with the Ombudsman’s office–they are the ones who provide individual case assistance to affirmative asylum seekers and other USCIS “customers” (as they are called). They are also tasked with improving the quality of USCIS services by making recommendations to improve the administration of immigration benefits. The annual report includes these recommendations.

In this posting, I want to discuss a few of the report’s findings that relate to asylum. Also, I will discuss the steps USCIS is taking to address the asylum backlog, and some recommendations for future improvements.

First, some findings. The report summarizes where we are now: 

A substantial backlog of affirmative asylum applications pending before USCIS has led to lengthy case processing times for tens of thousands of asylum seekers. Spikes in requests for reasonable and credible fear determinations, which have required the agency to redirect resources away from affirmative asylum adjudications, along with an uptick in new affirmative asylum filings, are largely responsible for the backlog and processing delays. Although USCIS has taken various measures to address these pending asylum cases, such as hiring additional staff, modifying scheduling priorities, and introducing new efficiencies into credible and reasonable fear adjudications, the backlog continues to mount.

All this, we already know, but here are some numbers: At the end of FY 2011 (September 30, 2011), there were 9,274 affirmative asylum cases pending before USCIS. By the end of December 2014, that figure reached 73,103—an increase of over 700 percent (by May 2015, the number had grown to over 85,000 cases).

Probably the main reason for the backlog is the large numbers of asylum seekers arriving at the Southern border from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. When someone arrives at the border and requests asylum, an Asylum Officer gives the applicant a reasonable fear interview or a credible fear interview (if the person “passes” the interview, she will generally be sent to Immigration Court, where a Judge will determine whether she qualifies for asylum). In FY 2011, there were a total of 14,627 such interviews. In FY 2014, there were 60,085 – a four-fold increase. The Ombudsman notes that, “Various factors have contributed to this rapid rise in credible and reasonable fear submissions, including widespread crime and violence in Central America, where a majority of the applicants originate.” The report continues:

These substantial increases demand considerable USCIS personnel and resources. For example, many Asylum Offices now send officers to various detention facilities around the nation to conduct credible and reasonable fear interviews. Such assignments deplete resources previously dedicated to affirmative asylum applications.

Another reason for the backlog is that the rate of new affirmative asylum filings has grown. “In FY 2011, asylum seekers filed 35,067 affirmative asylum applications with USCIS.” “In FY 2014, asylum seekers filed 56,912 affirmative asylum applications, a 62 percent increase.”

In addition, between September 2013 and December 2014, the number of “Unaccompanied Alien Children” with cases before USCIS increased from 868 to 4,221. These cases receive priority over backlogged adult applicants.

So what has USCIS done to address the delay?

First, the Asylum Division has been hiring more Asylum Officers. In 2013, there were 203 officers; by January 2015, there were 350, and the Asylum Division has authorization to elevate its total number of Asylum Officer positions to 448. Unfortunately, Asylum Officers do not stay in their jobs very long. The average tenure is only 14 months. One reason for the low retention rate may be that the Asylum Officer position does not have great promotional potential. Salaries start in the low $50-thousands and max out at less than $100,000. By comparison, lawyers who work in other areas of the federal government can earn more than $150,000 per year (and salaries in the private sector can be much higher).

Second, starting in late December 2014, USCIS now interviews cases on a “first-in, first-out” basis, meaning that the oldest cases are interviewed first. There is concern that such a system will encourage people to file frivolous cases in order to get a work permit while their cases are pending, but so far, we really do not know if that is happening.

Third, in May 2015, USCIS announced that it would begin publishing estimated wait times for asylum interviews at the different Asylum Offices. Supposedly, they will provide an approximate timetable—roughly a two to three-month range—within which the interview will take place. We have been hearing about this idea for some time, and hopefully, USCIS will post this information soon.

Finally, “USCIS has implemented a range of policy and procedural changes in the credible and reasonable fear contexts that have had the effect of shortening case processing times.” For example, more interviews are conducted telephonically, as opposed to in-person, which helps save the Asylum Officer’s time. Of course, shortcuts potentially affect the quality of the decision-making, and USCIS is monitoring this. Personally, given that the large majority of applicants “pass” their credible and reasonable fear interviews, I think it would save time to eliminate the interviews altogether, and allow anyone to submit an asylum application and go directly to court.

The report also lists two ways to potentially accelerate the interview date: (1) interview expedite requests; and (2) interview “Short Lists:”

First, each Asylum Office accepts and evaluates requests for expedited interviews, granting or denying those requests based on humanitarian factors, such as documented medical exigencies, as well as the Asylum Office’s available resources. Depending on the Asylum Office, applicants may make these requests in-person or via email. Some Asylum Offices also maintain Short Lists, containing the names of backlogged applicants who have volunteered to make themselves available for interviews scheduled on short notice due to unforeseen interview cancellations or other developments. Backlogged applicants may wish to contact their local Asylum Office to inquire about the availability of such a list.

I discussed these ideas, and a few others, here.

Lastly, I want to briefly discuss the report’s findings related to delays obtaining Employment Authorization Documents (“EADs”). The main point of interest here is that the delays are seasonal. For various reasons, EAD applications filed during the summer months take longer. This means–if possible–try to file for or renew your EAD outside the busy season. To me, there is an easy solution to this problem, at least as far as asylum seekers are concerned: USCIS should make the EAD valid for two years instead of one, or better yet, tie the EAD to the asylum application, so it is valid for the duration of the case. I have discussed problems and suggestions for improvement in the EAD process here.

Perhaps it provides some comfort to asylum seekers to know that the U.S. government is trying to reduce the backlog and move their cases along. If you are interested to learn more, take a look at the full report.

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BEGIN TRANSMISSION: 

If you’re reading this, maybe there’s still hope. Today is November 30, 2019. Dawn. Yesterday, the world came to an end. 

This is how the Immigration Court backlog ends.

This is how the Immigration Court backlog ends.

I am one of the few survivors. The very few. And I am sending this transmission back in time by Tachyon beam in a desperate attempt to avert the apocalypse and to save humanity. By my calculation, this message should be received in July 2015. Back then, in your present, it was not too late. Things could have—could still—turn out differently. 

What happened? Nuclear war? Environmental degradation? Rapture? No. Such disasters, we could have dealt with. It was something at once more horrifying and more mundane. More innocent, yet more insidious. Small, yet massive. You get the idea.

“What was it, then?!” you plead. Listen well, my friend, and I will tell you the tale of November 29, 2019. On that day, the U.S. Immigration Court system collapsed upon itself, creating a singularity–a black hole, if you will–that absorbed everything in its path: First it took foreigners. No one seemed to mind. Then it took hippies, Libertarians, bachelorettes, and then people who enjoy listening to the Redirect immigration podcast (seriously, though, you should be listening to that). Finally, it took everyone and everything else. Now, all that’s left is me and a few others. We don’t have much time. 

It all began innocently enough: Immigration Courts started scheduling a dozen or so aliens for hearings at the same time and place. Didn’t they know that this violates a basic law of physics and, as it turns out, a basic law of Immigration Court—No two aliens can occupy the same hearing space at the same time! Read your Archimedes, people! Isaac Newton! Anybody?

Oh, the powers-that-be at EOIR (the Executive Office for Immigration Review) didn’t think it was a big deal. They were violating the alien’s due process rights, but only a little. And it was for a good cause—efficiency, so what did it matter? But then they got arrogant. Master Calendar Hearings with 40, 50, 60 or more people. Half a dozen respondents on the same transcript, answering charges and conceding removability en masse. Due process protections eroding. But so slowly that no one noticed. The lawyers, the aliens, all of us became complacent. We let it happen. 

And then things got worse. In 2014, Immigration Judges started scheduling scores, then hundreds, then thousands of aliens to appear on a single day—November 29, 2019. They claimed this was some sort of “holding” date; that the cases would be rescheduled. Lies! Instead of making the hard journey up Mt. Sinai to seek justice, they worshipped below at the idols of efficiency and budget cuts. Who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind! 

Before anyone really understood what was happening, tens of thousands of immigrants were scheduled to appear in Immigration Court on that fateful day, November 29, 2019 (may it be obliterated from memory). Throughout November, they gathered. They came by themselves or with their families. Small children without parents. Old people. People who had lived in the U.S. for years and people who were fresh off the hovercraft (hovercrafts were very popular in 2019). They filled the Immigration Court waiting rooms and spilled into the hallways. Masses of people, huddled together. Waiting. Soon, the court buildings were full, but still they came. 

EOIR saw what was happening. They could have stopped the madness. They could have rescheduled the cases. But they didn’t. Why? Was it a conspiracy that reached to the highest levels of government? Or had some scheduling clerk gone rogue? I suppose we’ll never know, and anyway, it doesn’t much matter. 

The more the foreigners gathered, the more they came. It was exponential, logarithmic, seismic. Soon, it wasn’t only people facing deportation. People with TPS started showing up. They were followed by conditional residents who were still married (miracle of miracles). Then there were people with valid visas, still in lawful status: B’s, TN’s, and L’s, Q’s and R’s, H1-B’s and E’s, all varieties of A’s and J’s, and even the odd I or C visa holder. I knew we were in trouble by the time the lawful permanent residents began showing up. And when U.S. citizens started arriving, it was clear that something terrible would happen.

And then it did. The collective gravity of all those people began feeding on itself, swallowing everything and everyone in its path–a black hole. But like I say, if you’re reading this, there’s still hope. There is a simple solution to the Immigration Court backlog. It’s so obvious, that it’s a wonder no one noticed it before. All you have to do is…

ERROR ERROR ERROR END TRANSMISSION 

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If you have a case pending with the Asylum Office and you move, you are supposed to file a change of address (form AR-11) within 10 days. It should be that easy, but of course, these days at the Asylum Office, nothing is easy.

Does this count as a permanent address?

Does this count as a permanent address?

The first problem is that if you move and you file a change of address, it could affect your eligibility for an Employment Authorization Document (“EAD”)–a work permit. Once your case is received by the Asylum Division, the “Asylum Clock” starts to count time. When the Clock reaches 180 days, you are eligible for an EAD (you can mail your EAD application after 150 days, but unless the Clock reaches 180 days, you will not receive the EAD). The problem is that if you do anything to cause a delay in your case, the Clock will stop and you won’t get your EAD, at least not for a long time.

The Clock stops if you fail to appear for an interview or a fingerprint appointment, or if you move your case to a different Asylum Office–all these things are considered applicant-caused delay. Therefore, if you move, and the move results in your case transferring to a different Asylum Office, you may lose your opportunity to get an EAD (to see whether a particular move will cause your case to transfer to a new Asylum Office, you can check here).

In theory, the solution to this problem is easy: Don’t move until after you receive your EAD. In reality, it is not always so simple. People who file for asylum often do not have stable addresses in the United States (they’re refugees after all), and so it can be difficult to maintain a permanent address for long enough to receive the EAD. If at all possible, you should find a long-term address and use that address when you file your case. This will potentially save you a lot of trouble down the line.

For those unlucky few who must move their case to a different asylum office, you have to make a choice: Change your address–as the law requires–and likely lose the EAD (if less than 180 days have passed on the Clock), or violate the law by either keeping the old address (assuming you can still get mail there) or using another address within the jurisdiction of the original asylum office. If you choose to violate the law, you will probably get the EAD, but you could be subject to civil and criminal penalties (a fine and up to 30 days in jail), and it could affect the outcome of your asylum case (“So, Ms. Asylum-Seeker, you lied to us about your address. What else are you lying about?”).

Another problem for people who change Asylum Offices is that the transfer can cause delay (though I’ve seen examples both ways – usually a move makes the case slower, but in other cases, it seems to make the case faster). It may also put you far away from the lawyer who initially prepared your case or other people who are assisting you. There is not much you can do about these things, but they are good to think about before you file the case. 

A third problem occurs when you move for a temporary period of time. I see this a lot: People move to a new city for school or work, but they do not change their “permanent” address. In this case, it is sometimes difficult to know whether to file a change of address form. If you change your address again and again, you will potentially bounce around between different asylum offices and never get an interview. On the other hand, the Asylum Officer might be suspicious if you list your home address in one city, but you are working or studying in a distant city. When my clients make a “temporary” move, I advise them to keep as much of their documents at their “permanent” address as possible: Driver’s license, tax documents, bank accounts, etc. Even so, it is unclear whether we are violating the law by not informing DHS about the temporary move. Indeed, the law itself (INA § 265) provides little guidance. At least in my experience, the Asylum Office is fairly lenient on people who make temporary moves, as long as there is evidence that they have maintained the permanent address.  

As a lawyer, of course, I cannot advise anyone to violate the law by not filing a change of address form. But I would offer that if you are thinking about violating the law in order to get your EAD or keep your case from being transferred, you should talk to a lawyer first about your specific case. It may seem easy enough to not inform USCIS of an address change, but I have seen this play out at asylum interviews, and I recently almost had a big problem for one client who failed to inform USCIS about his change of address (let’s just say I was chastised by the Asylum Officer, which made me feel kind-of bad (Jewish guilt and all that), but fortunately, the client received asylum). 

In the end, the best way to avoid a problem is to file the asylum application using an address where you can remain for a while. In the days before the backlog, when cases only took a few months, this was not difficult. But now, like everything else related to asylum, it ain’t easy.

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Since the surge of asylum seekers arriving at our Southern border began in 2013, the number of people held in family detention has increased dramatically. Men, women (including pregnant women), children, and infants are kept in secure facilities—jails—while their asylum cases are adjudicated. There have been plenty of issues at these facilities: Allegations of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by guards, inadequate food, suicide attempts. A recently-filed lawsuit claims that people are kept in freezing, overcrowded, and unsanitary cells. Many immigration advocates have been calling for an end to family detention, and recently 33 U.S. Senators signed a letter requesting a halt to the practice.

Powder blue is the new black.

Powder blue is the new black.

On the other side of the debate are those who believe that family detention does not go far enough. They argue that allowing anyone to arrive at the border, request asylum, and then receive entre into the United States is an abuse of the system, a threat to our security, and an inducement to others—many others—to try the same thing. The restrictionists, led by several House Republicans, believe that permitting asylum seekers into the United States is tantamount to an open borders policy: Anyone who wants to come to the U.S. need only say the magic words—“I am seeking asylum”—and they will be granted admission.

Is this, then, our only choice? Either we detain everyone who arrives here until their cases are finally decided, or we throw open our borders to all comers?

I can imagine circumstances where it would be justified to detain arriving asylum seekers–including children–and I think it is worth exploring the possible justifications, and whether they are legitimate. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons for family detention and whether they are justified:

1. Some of the people coming here are dangerous, and since we don’t know who the bad guys are, we should detain everyone – Detaining an asylum seeker (or any arriving alien) who poses a danger to the U.S. is perfectly legitimate. Given how little we know about people seeking entry at the border, it makes sense to be cautious when releasing people from detention. But in the case of detained families, it is highly unlikely that mothers and children present a threat to our country’s safety. For the most part, I don’t think the U.S. government views mothers and children as a security issue, and I don’t see how the widespread detention of such people can be justified on these grounds.

2. The only way to deter migrants from making the risky journey to the U.S. is to stop rewarding them with admission into our country – This argument at least has the pretense of concern for the migrants’ safety. Indeed, a bill floating around the House of Representative, which would make it more difficult for unaccompanied minors to seek asylum in the United States, is called the Protection of Children Act. Of course, the journey from Central America to the U.S. can be dangerous (though the danger is far less than that faced by asylum seekers who cross the Mediterranean to Europe). Despite its superficial good intentions, my feeling is that this argument is simply a pretext to keep people out. If lawmakers really cared about the fate of the young people coming to the U.S., they would ensure that each person receives a complete and fair hearing on the merits of her case.

3. Most Central American asylum seekers have weak cases, and so they will eventually be deported. If we allow them in, they will disappear and not abide by their removal orders – The validity of this argument depends largely on how frequently non-citizens abscond. As usual, we need more data to be sure, but Immigration Court statistics indicate that since 2005, only about 60.9% of minors appear for their court hearings (the appearance rate has improved somewhat in the last few years, and represented juveniles are much more likely to appear (92.5%) than unrepresented (27.5%)). Given that a significant percentage of unaccompanied minors will abscond, this seems to be a legitimate argument in favor of detention.

To make matters worse, many of the asylum seekers coming from Central America have weak cases and—assuming they appear for their hearings—they are likely to be ordered removed. While this argument presents a real challenge to immigration advocates, there is, I think, a more humane (and less expensive) response than jailing families.

Alternatives to detention (“ATD”)–such as electronic monitoring, bond, and intensive supervision (via telephonic or in-person reporting)–are effective ways to improve court-attendance rates. A recent GAO report indicates that between 95 and 99% of aliens on one ATD program reported for their hearings (the report also indicates that more data is necessary to fully evaluate the program). If more resources were shifted from detention to ATD, it would likely become an even more effective method of ensuring aliens’ appearance in court.

Also, while asylum cases from Central America are often legally weak, many of the applicants have a very legitimate fear of persecution in their home countries. The problem is that the fear of harm (from gangs, cartels or domestic partners) does not easily fit within a protected category for asylum. I remember one case where I did a bit of pro bono work: A gang member wanted to date the applicant’s sister. When the parents refused, the gang murdered most of the family. Applicant escaped the massacre and came to the U.S. An Immigration Judge denied asylum because the case did not fit into a protected category. That decision was ultimately reversed (by a federal court), but it illustrates the problem—just because you do not fit neatly into a protected category does not mean that you will be safe in your country. Because of the high stakes involved and the difficulty of demonstrating a “nexus,” asylum cases from Central America often need more—not less—attention from decision-makers and advocates. When applicants are detained and their cases are rushed through the system, it is often impossible to ensure that due process is respected and that we are fulfilling our humanitarian obligations (and sometimes, the results are deadly).

4. If we allow the migrants to enter, it will only encourage others to follow – Our geographic isolation has resulted in relatively few people seeking asylum in our country (compared with, say, Jordan, South Africa or Pakistan). This has allowed us the luxury of an elaborate (i.e., expensive) asylum system. Our system is not designed to handle large numbers of applicants, and indeed, the surge has threatened “the system” in at least two ways: (1) Delays throughout the system have become so interminable that many applicants simply cannot wait for a decision. Some are separated from close family members; others are under great psychological pressure. These delays—measured in years–have proved too much for many applicants, and they have left the country for fates unknown; and (2) The large numbers of arriving aliens have also attracted Congressional attention, and several bills have been introduced that would curtail the rights of asylum applicants.

The question here is whether detaining families and rushing court cases will deter would-be migrants, and thus save “the system.” 

As a general principle, I think it is a bad idea to deny certain asylum seekers due process in order to preserve the system for other asylum seekers. Part of the problem is that we have never had a real debate about who should qualify for asylum. Victims of gang violence and domestic violence are not traditional asylum seekers. Such people qualify for asylum as a result of creative lawyers pushing the boundaries of the law. Perhaps if there had been a rational policy debate about whether such people should qualify for asylum, or whether we should offer them some other type of humanitarian protection, we would not be faced with our current dilemma.

Finally, I doubt that the restrictionists will ever be satisfied with President Obama’s efforts related to border enforcement. Trying to preserve the asylum system by appeasing such people is pointless. While I believe we need to decide, as a country, who we will offer asylum to, I am not convinced that detaining families will convince those who oppose the asylum system to change their minds.  

In the end, while I believe there are reasonable arguments supporting family detention, I am not convinced. Given the alternatives to detention, we can better fulfill our humanitarian obligations and protect our borders without detaining families and children.

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Magna Carta and the Rights of Refugees

by Jason Dzubow on June 9, 2015

in Asylum, Legal Relief

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June 15, 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, a document signed by King John, which granted certain rights to English noblemen. Although the Magna Carta was executed under duress and was nullified by the Pope a month later (at John’s request), it has become a foundational document of the American Constitutional system (our system, of course, derives from the English system). 

The Magna Carta brought us Due Process of Law, and this lovely commemorative mug. Available wherever finer mugs are sold.

The Magna Carta brought us Due Process of Law, and this lovely commemorative mug. Available wherever finer mugs are sold.

What is important about the Magna Carta is not so much the document itself, with its checkered history and its very limited application. Rather, it is the idea of the document that matters: The idea that even the king himself is subject to law and that the People can assert their rights against the sovereign. Indeed, the Magna Carta states

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

In other words, the sovereign will not act against the subject without due process of law.

While apparently the idea of due process did not gain much traction at the time, it was later elevated to importance in England and the United States, and it is now fundamental to our system of justice. We are all (theoretically) entitled to a fair procedure before the government can assert its power against us. 

Of course, it was not always this way. When our country was founded, most people did not enjoy many basic legal rights: Women, minorities, slaves, Native Americans, foreigners, indentured servants, to name the most obvious. Over time, and with much struggle, such individuals gained more legal protections.

But one area where the State retains great power vis-à-vis the individual is in immigration law: The sovereign state determines who will be admitted into the country and who will be excluded. The United States government is allowed to discriminate against arriving aliens. If we don’t want to admit people from China into our country, we don’t have to. If we decide to exclude Muslims, we can do that too. There is no Equal Protection clause for foreigners seeking admission to the U.S.

There are more Constitutional protections available to aliens physically present in the U.S. and in removal (deportation) proceedings, but even these protections are far less than those accorded to criminal defendants. Aliens in removal proceedings do not have a right to an attorney (unless they can afford to hire one). They do not have Miranda rights. They have no right to a jury trial or to see all the evidence against them. They have more limited Fourth Amendment (search and seizure) and Fifth Amendment (self-incrimination) protections than criminal defendants.

But one Constitution right that applies to aliens in removal proceedings is the Due Process clause: Aliens are entitled to a fair procedure, and–if that procedure is violated–they can petition the federal courts for redress. As the Supreme Court has held:

[T]he Due Process Clause applies to all “persons” within the United States, including aliens, whether their presence here is lawful, unlawful, temporary, or permanent.

Because it is one of the few arrows in our quiver, immigration lawyers rely heavily on the Due Process clause, particularly in federal court litigation. The sovereign state has tremendous power to remove non-citizens from U.S. territory, but in doings so, it must comport with due process of law.

In some ways, modern-day immigration law mirrors the early days of domestic law in Great Britain. At the time of the Magna Carta, the king had great power compared to his subjects. Over the centuries, the power of the State has eroded in favor of granting more rights to the People. But this evolution has been far less dramatic in the area of international law and immigration law, where–in the United States–the Executive Branch largely retains plenary power. Perhaps in some more-civilized future, there will exist a system of international law that grants more power to individual immigrants and less power to sovereign nations. I can’t help but think that that would be a good thing.

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According to a letter from four members of Congress to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson,  a “recent disclosure [by USCIS] regarding the number of aliens found to have a ‘credible fear’ in cases where the terrorism bar to asylum eligibility may have applied raised the concern that hundreds of known and suspected aliens with terrorist connections may be attempting to take advantage of our country’s asylum system.”

Eli Wiesel provided slave labor to the Nazis, so he may be subject to the terrorism bar.

Eli Wiesel provided slave labor to the Nazis, so he may be subject to the terrorism bar.

The “recent disclosure” from USCIS to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform revealed that “the terrorism bar to asylum eligibility may be applicable to 299 aliens who were found to have a ‘credible fear’ of persecution in the first four months of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, and to 339 aliens who were found to have a ‘credible fear’ in FY 2014.” The four Congressman–Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Trey Gowdy (R-SC), and Ron DeSantis (R-FL)–requested more information about the 638 aliens in question, including each aliens’ confidential A-file and whether and by what authority each alien was released from detention.

First, what’s this all about?

When an alien arrives at the border (or at an airport), she can request asylum. Rather than admit her into the U.S., the alien is usually detained and scheduled for a “credible fear” interview–a preliminary evaluation of eligibility for asylum. The large majority of aliens “pass” the credible fear interview. Their cases are then transferred to an Immigration Judge and–in most, but not all, cases–they are released from detention. Aliens who do not pass the credible fear interview are deported.

In 638 credible fear interviews, conducted since October 2013, the alien said something or the U.S. government had some information that may have implicated a Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Ground (“TRIG”). This could have been something relatively benign (the alien paid extortion money to a gang) or something of great concern (the alien is Osama bin Laden’s best friend). We don’t know–the TRIGs are very broad (as I’ve discussed here).

One piece of information that we do have is the list of countries that send us the most credible fear applicants: El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Ecuador. These are not normally countries we associate with terrorism. However, these nations have major problems with gang and cartel violence, so we might suspect that many of the TRIG issues raised in credible fear interviews relate to paying extortion to criminal groups. Again, though, we really don’t know.

So what’s the solution? In their letter, the four Congressman request more information from DHS about the TRIG issues raised during credible fear interviews. This seems to me a perfectly reasonable request. We need to know more so we can better understand what is happening, who is coming here, and how we can make more appropriate policy decisions.

I do have a few concerns about the letter, however. At least some of the Congressmen making the request have demonstrated a clear bias against asylum seekers. Since everything these days is subject to spin, I worry that the Congressmen will use the data–no matter how benign–to stir up more anti-immigrant feelings and place further restrictions on asylum seekers. DHS should not let that happen. DHS can do its own evaluation of the data and release a report to the public (it would be difficult to make the raw data publicly available due to confidentiality issues).

Another concern I have is that the Congressmen are requesting the A-files for individual asylum seekers. Pursuant to 8 C.F.R. § 208.6, these files are confidential, though they can be shared within the government for legitimate purposes. While I believe that the Congressmen have no intention of breaching confidentiality, we do not know what safeguards they have put into place to protect the individual asylum seekers. Who will be reviewing the 638 files (that will be a big job)? Interns? Regular staff members? What training do they have? Do they have a security clearance? Where will the files be kept? How will the results of the study be released so as to ensure confidentiality for individuals? What will happen to the files at the end of the process? These questions need to be answered before DHS releases the A files to Congress.

Finally, the letter demands that the files be turned over before COB on June 3, 2015–two weeks after the letter was written. How the Congressmen expect DHS to gather this information and turn it over on time–while ensuring confidentiality–is beyond me. The seemingly impossible time frame attached to the letter detracts from its credibility. If the Congressmen are serious about gathering and analyzing this data (which is a very worthy goal), they should approach the problem in a more reasonable way. For example, they could involve the Congressional Research Service, which has the expertise to review and analyze raw data from USCIS.

I have written before that we need more data about who is seeking asylum in the United States, how they get here, why they are requesting asylum, and the decision-making process itself. Such information would make our country safer and our asylum system better. Congress has an important role to play in this process and so does DHS. Hopefully, for once, the two can play nice together and get the job done. 

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The European Union has been struggling to cope with a surge of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The high season has not yet begun, and already hundreds have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Thousands more have arrived on the Continent to seek protection. In response, the EU is planning a combined military campaign by air, sea, and possibly land against the smuggling networks. Can such a plan succeed? And could the lessons of Europe be applied to our own migration crisis along the Southern border?

Just because you have a hammer does not mean every problem is a nail.

Just because you have a hammer does not mean every problem is a nail.

According to a recent article about the EU plan:

The campaign’s aim is defined as “to disrupt the business model of the smugglers, achieved by undertaking systematic efforts to identify, seize/capture, and destroy vessels and assets before they are used by smugglers … The operation will need to be phased in and will be heavily dependent on intelligence.

Military operations would focus on actions “inside Libya’s internal and territorial waters and the coast,” and possibly “ashore,” as well.

The downsides of such an operation are fairly obvious. As an EU planning document admits, the campaign could result in innocent people being killed: “Boarding operations against smugglers in the presence of migrants has a high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life.” There are also difficult practical problems—smugglers frequently rent boats from fisherman and then fill the boat with migrants shortly before they sail. So there is little time to identify which boats are being used for human cargo and to neutralize them before people are aboard. Also, the Libyan coast is dangerous. Different militias control different parts of the country, and some have the capacity to target European warships and aircraft. Finally, and maybe most significantly, the migrants are desperate people fleeing for their lives, so it is unclear whether they would be dissuaded from their journey if it were marginally more difficult.

On the other hand, large numbers of people are already dying at sea (about 2,000 so far this year), and there is little doubt that the impunity the smugglers enjoy encourages them to continue their activities. There is also some evidence that the smugglers are encouraging certain people to make the journey, when they would be better off staying put. But the question is, Can military force make the situation better?

First, I suppose it depends on how we define “better.” If we mean that Europe will have to deal with fewer migrants, then military action against the smugglers may make things “better,” at least to some degree. We’ve seen this story before in the militarization of the drug war. The costs to the drug smugglers goes up, the cost of the product goes up, and—perhaps—fewer drugs get through. The key difference between smuggling humans and smuggling drugs is that each person must be able to pay for the cost of his trip. If the cost to smuggle drugs goes up, the users pay, but if the cost of human trafficking goes up, the trafficked people must pay. If action against the traffickers increases the cost of passage, maybe fewer people will be able to afford the journey. And if fewer migrants reach Europe, the situation will be “better” in that Europe will not have to deal with it.

But if “better” means actually addressing the problem, interdicting smugglers will likely not make the situation any better. If the asylum seekers were merely economic migrants, they might be dissuaded from making the trip. But most of the people crossing the Med are fleeing for their lives–they are from places like Syria and Eritrea, where return to the home country is unthinkable. Cutting off the route to Europe will–at best–force them to go somewhere else.

While Europe does bear some of the blame for the current mess in the Middle East and Africa (due to colonialism and economic exploitation), I don’t believe that the Europeans can be expected to accept every migrant who come their way. However, I do think Europe–and the rest of the world–has a moral obligation to help legitimate refugees fleeing violence and persecution. Perhaps European interests would be better served by using its military and logistical power to establish better safe havens for refugees, and to create an orderly resettlement process for those who will likely never return home.

And what of America? Is there a military solution to our own migrant crisis? Much of the migration to our country is driven by gang and cartel violence in Central America and Mexico. Last year, the Congressional Research Service published a report about the U.S. government’s role in combating Central American gangs. The report details our efforts on the law enforcement and preventative sides of the gang problem. In short, it seems that a law enforcement-only approach (such as Mano Duro in El Salvador) is not as effective as a more holistic approach, and so the effectiveness of throwing additional military forces against the gangs seems doubtful.

Perhaps the border itself could be further militarized, but it is difficult to see how this would make much difference either. The number of agents at the border is at an all time high, and the number of apprehensions has dropped to 1970s levels (indicating fewer people attempting to enter illegally). The bigger problem these days is the large number of people surrendering at the border and requesting asylum, and of course this is not a problem amenable to a military solution.

For us and for the Europeans, the influx of asylum seekers presents a serious challenge. Rather than using military force to attack smugglers and deflect the problem, we would be better off addressing root causes and protecting vulnerable people from harm.

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Update on the Asylum Backlog

by Jason Dzubow on May 13, 2015

in Asylum Office, Asylum Seekers

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If you’ve visited this website before, you know that I’ve written about the asylum backlog again and again… and again and again and again and again. And yet again. And once more. And probably a few other times in-between. USCIS recently released some new statistics on asylum, and so I thought I would share them here and discuss the current situation.

Measured in smoots, the backlog is 86.9 miles long + one ear.

Measured in smoots, the backlog is 86.9 miles long + one ear.

First off, despite the efforts of the Asylum Division, the backlog continues to grow. In January 2015, the total number of backlogged cases was 76,446. By the end of March 2015, there were 82,175 backlogged asylum cases nationwide. The numbers have only increased since then.

The main cause of the backlog has been large numbers of people–mostly young people–coming to the United States from Central America. These young people are detained at the border and receive a credible fear interview, which is an initial assessment of eligibility for asylum. If they pass the credible fear interview, their case is referred to an Immigration Court, which then fully reviews their asylum application. The credible fear interviews are conducted by Asylum Officers, and because they are detained at government expense, the young people are given priority over other (non-detained) asylum seekers. Because the Asylum Division must devote resources to these credible fear interviews, they have been unable to keep up with the more traditional asylum cases. Hence, the backlog.

I keep expecting the number of young people coming here to wane, but so far that has not been the case. Indeed, the number of people coming from Central America this year is nearly identical to the numbers we saw last year. And given that summer is traditionally a busier time for migration from Central America, we can expect more young people to arrive at our border in the next few months. Thus, it seems likely that the backlogged cases will keep piling up.

According to the latest statistics, the least backlogged offices are Houston (3,971 backlogged cases), Arlington (5,791), and Chicago (6,485). The most backlogged office is Los Angeles (17,042), followed by Newark (14,924), New York (13,568), Miami (11,366), and San Francisco (9,028). Wait times in these offices roughly correlate with the number of cases backlogged, so Houston is currently the fastest office and Los Angeles is the slowest.

Of course, obtaining a (relatively) quick interview date is of little value if the case is denied. In terms of grant rates, the fastest offices are not necessarily the most likely to grant asylum. Although the statistics on this vary, the offices in Chicago, Houston, Miami, Newark, and New York all grant asylum less than 33% of the time. Arlington and Los Angeles grant about 50% of their cases, and San Francisco grants over 60% of its cases.

So what is the Asylum Division doing to address the backlog?

For one thing, they have been hiring more Asylum Officers. Since the backlog began in 2013, the number of staff members has increased by 90% and they continue to hire and train more officers. It appears that the Asylum Division will continue to add new officers through 2016. So if–and it is a big if–we see a drop in credible fear interviews at the border, the asylum offices should be well positioned to make some progress on the backlog.

The Asylum Division is also making an effort to keep the public more informed about the backlog. For some months now, there has been discussion about providing more information about processing times at the different asylum offices (for example, the Arlington, Virginia office is currently interviewing cases from July 2013). Because workloads are unpredictable, the asylum offices do not know when they will interview an individual case, but they do know which cases they are processing now. By posting this information, at least asylum seekers will have some idea about where they stand in the queue (the Department of State has a similar system for family- and employment-based immigration visas).

The asylum offices have also created some very limited ways to expedite cases. I have discussed those here.

As an advocate for asylum seekers, of course I believe that more should be done. Most importantly, I would like to see the asylum offices give higher priority to people separated from their immediate relatives. I would also like to see more resources devoted to processing I-730 petitions, which allow approved asylum seekers to bring their spouses and children to the U.S. Also, given that asylum cases are moving slowly, I would like to see USCIS issue work permits (EADs) for two or more years, instead of just one year. Finally, I would like to see responsibility for credible fear interviews moved from the Asylum Division to a separate unit or–better yet–the elimination of credible fear interviews altogether (CFIs are basically rubber stamps and thus a waste of resources; it would be better if such cases were adjudicated in the first instance by an Immigration Judge).

The Asylum Division is faced with a very difficult–if not impossible–task: To continue adjudicating asylum cases while dealing with an unpredictable and overwhelming number of credible fear cases, all the while, with a hostile Congress looking for excuses to reduce asylum protections. For the sake of our asylum system and those who need protection, I hope they can navigate these treacherous waters.

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We think of spring in the Northern hemisphere as a time of rebirth and renewal. But in the Mediterranean, for refugees attempting to reach Europe by sea, it is a time of dying.

Deporting children protects them. Vaccines cause Autism. Ketchup is a vegetable.

Deporting children protects them. Vaccines cause Autism. Ketchup is a vegetable.

Last month, over 800 people died when an overcrowded boat sank en router from Libya to Southern Europe. That brings the number of migrant deaths at sea during this season to 1,780 people, as compared to 96 people during the same period last year.

By contrast, deaths at the U.S. border are down from previous years. The Associated Press reports that, “The number of people who died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped to the lowest level in 15 years as more immigrants turned themselves in to authorities in Texas and fewer took their chances with the dangerous trek across the Arizona desert.” In FY 2014, the government recorded 307 deaths at the border. Although this is significantly lower than what we are seeing in Europe, hundreds of people are still dying each year on their journeys to the United States (and of course this figure does not include people who die on the route to the U.S. before they reach our border).

In many cases, the migrants coming to Europe and the United States are fleeing severe violence in their home countries. They are desperate people seeking safety and a better life in the West. And although in many ways the U.S. and Europe are hostile to asylum seekers, we do provide strong “pull factors” that encourage people to make the journey. We offer such people asylum.

So it’s fair to ask: Does the very fact that we offer asylum provide an incentive for people to risk their lives–and sometimes die–to reach our country?

A recent bill proposed in Congress and passed by the House Judiciary Committee seems to answer this question in the affirmative. The bill, called the Protection of Children Act of 2015, would “protect” unaccompanied minors who come to the U.S. by sending them home more expeditiously. One of the bill’s sponsors, Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) explained the rationale for this new legislation:

The Obama Administration’s immigration policies have given confidence to parents who are in the U.S. illegally that they can stay and have encouraged them to bring their children, who are still in Central America and beyond, to the United States unlawfully. These children, often assisted by smugglers, face many dangerous situations as they travel through Mexico and then walk miles across a hostile border environment. We need to take action to stop these children from risking their lives to come to the United States unaccompanied and unlawfully. The Protection of Children Act makes common sense changes to our laws to ensure minors who travel to the U.S. alone are returned home safely and quickly.

While the bill will not, in fact, protect any children (rather, it will harm them), the Protection of Children Act is–at least in part–an effort to reduce the incentive for people to come to the U.S. for asylum and thus an effort to reduce the number of people who die attempting to reach our country.

But still, the question remains: Do our asylum laws encourage people to come illegally to the United States and risk their lives in the process? Is our generosity killing people?

One way to look at the question is to explore the motivation for asylum seekers’ coming to the U.S. Which is more important, the “push” of danger in the home country or the “pull” of asylum in the United States? If the “pull” is more important, we would expect that people from similar countries would come to the U.S. in similar numbers, regardless of violence levels in those countries. So for example, we would expect to see people coming to the U.S. in similar numbers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua (all poor Central American countries). A review of the data, however, indicates that this is not the case. Many more people come to the U.S. from the more violent countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) than from the less violent one (Nicaragua) (I have written more about this here). 

Some of the disparity may be because there are more people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in the U.S. than there are people from Nicaragua, and so perhaps migrants are not fleeing violence, but instead are coming here for family unity. There is no doubt that this is part of the equation. However, according to the Pew Foundation, there are roughly 408,261 Nicaraguans in the U.S. By comparison, there are 774,866 Hondurans, 1,265,400 Guatemalans, and 1,969,495 Salvadorans in the United States. I could not find recent data on the number of Nicaraguans coming to the U.S., but for December 2014, Nicaragua was not even in the top 10 sending countries for asylum seekers. In that month, 333 people filed for asylum from Honduras, 495 from El Salvador, and 546 from Guatemala. One hundred and fifty four people filed for asylum from India, which is # 10 on the list, so we know that even fewer people sought asylum from Nicaragua. Given the significant number of Nicaraguans living in the U.S., if family unity was the main “pull” factor, we would expect greater numbers of migrants from Nicaragua.

All this leads to the conclusion that violent conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are “pushing” people to come to the United States. And, by the way, this squares with anecdotal evidence from the asylum seekers themselves and the lawyers (like me) who represent them.

So what does it all mean? If people are coming here mainly due to “push” factors (violence) and not “pull” factors (asylum), then making it more difficult for them to claim asylum in the U.S. (or Europe) is unlikely to dissuade them from making the journey.

Most asylum seekers, like most people, are rational and respond to their environment in rationale ways. If conditions are violent and they fear for their lives, people will flee. If there is somewhere safe for them to go, they will go. The Protection of Children Act does nothing to protect such people. It merely shifts the problem somewhere else. To help reduce the number of asylum seeker deaths, the United States and Europe need to do more to address the root causes of violence. Making life even more difficult for those fleeing harm will only make a bad situation worse.

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