The purpose of the Asylum Office Scheduling Bulletin (“AOSB”) is to give asylum applicants “an estimate for when they might expect their interview to be scheduled.” At best, though, it’s a very rough estimate. The problem is that the AOSB tells only part of the story, and not even the most important part. Let me explain.
First, what is the AOSB? It is a chart that lists the eight main Asylum Offices. For each office, we can see the filing date of the cases that that office was interviewing in March 2016 (the most recent month listed on the chart). We can also see the two previous months (January and February 2016), which gives some idea about how quickly (or not) the office is moving through its case load.
So, for example, if you look at the Arlington, Virginia Asylum Office, you will see that as of March 2016, it is interviewing people who filed their cases in October 2013. In January and February 2016, Arlington was interviewing people who filed their cases in September 2013. The Chicago office has made the most progress during this period, advancing from May to August 2013. San Francisco is also making steady progress, moving from January to March 2014. Other offices–Houston, Los Angeles, Miami–have moved not at all. But again, this is only part of the story.
One thing the numbers do not tell you is that many of the cases filed prior to December 26, 2014 have already been interviewed. Extrapolating from our own case load, for example, I estimate that in my local Asylum Office (Arlington), approximately 60% of cases filed between October 2013 (the date listed on the AOSB) and December 2014 have already been interviewed. That’s because there was a policy change on December 26, 2014 affecting how the Asylum Offices handle their cases.
What happened is this: In the Good Old Days (and the dates for “the Good Old Days” differ depending on your Asylum Office), asylum cases were filed and interviewed relatively quickly. At my local office, most interviews took place two or three months after filing. Then, starting in 2012 or 2013, and continuing until today, the number of people arriving at our Southern border increased significantly. These migrants are mostly young people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. They are fleeing violence and poverty. Some are attempting to reunite with family members already in the United States.
At the border, the migrants ask for asylum. They are generally detained and subject to a credible fear interview (“CFI”). A CFI is an initial evaluation of eligibility for asylum. It is easier to “pass” a CFI than to win asylum, and a large majority of applicants pass the interview. They are then permitted to present their asylum cases to an Immigration Judge or an Asylum Officer. Applicants who do not pass the CFI are deported.
This mass migration (often called “the surge”) affects the affirmative asylum process in a few ways. First, CFIs are conducted by Asylum Officers. These are the same officers who conduct asylum interviews at the various Asylum Offices. If the officers are spending time on CFIs, they obviously are not spending time interviewing applicants at the Asylum Offices. And since most of the people arriving at the Southern border are detained, which costs the U.S. government money, CFIs get priority over the Asylum Officers’ other work. Another way the surge has affected asylum seekers is that the Asylum Offices are prioritizing unaccompanied minors over other applicants. A large percentage of “surge” asylum applicants are minors, and thus their interviews receive priority over “regular” asylum seekers.
When DHS diverted resources away from the Asylum Offices, affirmative cases started piling up. This began in our local office in 2013. About 60% of the case we filed during this period were interviewed in the normal time frame; the other 40% disappeared. The disappeared cases came to be known as “the backlog.”
Once it became apparent that the backlog was not going away, the Asylum Division changed its policy. Starting on December 26, 2014, cases would be interviewed on a first-in/first-out basis. This meant that the Asylum Offices started interviewing the cases in the order received, starting with the cases that had disappeared into the backlog. The AOSB was first published in about July 2015, and since then, there has not been a whole lot of progress. In Arlington, for example, since July 2015, the Asylum Office has only advanced from August to October 2013. Los Angeles is worse. Back in July 2015, they were interviewing cases filed in August 2011. Today, they are still interviewing cases filed in August 2011. Ugh.
The U.S. government has been trying to improve the situation. The Asylum Division has hired more staff, including officers devoted exclusively to CFIs. We now have a system–limited to be sure–to process refugees in-country in Central America and bring them to the U.S. More controversially, we seem to have convinced Mexico to crack down on migrants passing through its territory, and we have prioritized the deportation of “surge” applicants, sometimes at the expense of our international obligations and due process of law. But if the AOSB provides any indication, these efforts have done little to reduce the backlog.
The most important factor impacting movement at the Asylum Offices still appears to be the number of people arriving at the Southern border. As long as these numbers remain high, I am not optimistic that the Asylum Offices will make much progress on the backlog. And the prospects for improvement in the near-term do not look good: Preliminary reports from the border indicate that we can expect more asylum seekers than ever, as migrants seek to enter the U.S. before our increasingly-hostile political climate makes conditions for asylum seekers at the border even more dire.
All these factors, and more (like, how cases and CFIs are distributed between Asylum Offices, how many Asylum Officers are detailed overseas to process refugees, etc.), contribute to movement on the AOSB. Because there are so many unpredictable factors at play, I don’t see how the AOSB can claim any accuracy as a long-term predictor of when an individual asylum interview will be held. To me, it’s kind of like looking at the weather report a month before your vacation. It doesn’t tell you much, but since it’s all you’ve got, you pay attention anyway.
In the end, there is some value to the AOSB: Once you see that your asylum filing date is coming up, you know to prepare for your interview. Also, for applicants, I suppose it is helpful to know that they are not alone in Backlogistan. But as far as predicting interview dates, the AOSB is a mirage in the desert–it may encourage you to keep walking, but it tells you nothing about when you might get your next drink of water.