For certain applications with USCIS, the applicant can pay an additional fee of $1,000.00 and receive “premium processing.” For people seeking an H1B visa or a green card based on extraordinary ability, payment of the premium processing fee is the norm, and the result is that USCIS responds to the application (sometimes with an approval, other times with a request for additional evidence) within a few weeks. So should premium processing be available for people seeking asylum?
There are certainly arguments against such a scheme: Humanitarian benefits should not be for sale, it is unfair to privilege wealthy applicants over poor applicants, asylum is somehow cheapened by making it more expensive. But given the current state of affairs in the asylum world, I think that USCIS should allow premium processing for asylum seekers who want it and can pay for it.
First, the current state of affairs: The asylum system is groaning under the weight of too many applications. Thousands of cases from 2013 are still lost in limbo, and–at least based on my observation of the local office here in Virginia–we seem to be on the verge of another slow down. People separated from family members have no recourse except to wait. And worse, they have no idea how long they will have to wait. The Asylum Offices have created “short lists” where (supposedly) you can put your name on a list, and if a slot opens up, you will be interviewed. So far, at least for my clients, this seems to work not at all. The bottom line is that we are facing very long delays and applicants and their family members are suffering severely.
So how would premium processing help?
Obviously, for those applicants who could pay the fee (whether $1,000.00 or some other amount), their cases would be given priority. This would benefit those applicants who pay the fee, but–if implemented correctly–it would also benefit people who do not pay the fee because the premium processing cases would be removed from the general queue, which would free up interview slots for everyone else.
Quantifying the effect of a premium processing fee is a bit tricky, however. For one thing, it is not easy to find asylum statistics from the government. A good guess is that between 3,500 and 4,000 people per month file affirmative asylum cases. That is approximately 40,000 people per year. If half those people paid a premium processing fee of $1,000.00, an additional $20 million would be pumped into the system. This would be a significant increase in funding. As best as I can tell, the budget for asylum and refugee operations for FY 2014 is about $236 million, so an additional $20 million for asylum operations alone would be a major increase (the asylum and refugee budget is paid for by USCIS application fees from non-asylum cases, so the cost to U.S. tax payers is minimal). With this additional money, the Asylum Offices could hire more officers, provide resources to expedite background checks, set up a system so applicants could track the progress of their cases, and even provide free donuts and coffee to attorneys waiting for their clients’ interviews. In other words, the money could be used to improve the system for everyone, including those who do not pay the fee.
Of course, we don’t know how many asylum applicants would (or could) pay a premium processing fee, but I suspect that many would pay. Remember that asylum applicants differ from refugees in that they have come to the United States on their own. Whether they came legally or illegally, it is likely that they paid for their journey here. Also, many asylum applicants pay attorneys or notarios to prepare their cases. My guess is that many such people would be happy to pay a fee if it meant that their cases would be adjudicated more quickly.
I must admit that I feel a bit uncomfortable about asking asylum applicants to pay the government to adjudicate their cases (which is maybe ironic, since I ask them to pay me). But given the difficulties caused by long delays (separation from family, stress, uncertainty), I feel that the benefits of a premium processing system would far outweigh any disadvantages.