LOS ANGELES — The U.S. government will start reviewing more recent asylum applications ahead of older ones in a bid to stem a growing backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases, officials said Wednesday.
The move aims to prevent immigrants from applying for asylum to bide their time and obtain work permits when they don’t qualify for the protection as well as enable those genuinely fleeing persecution in their home countries to settle here, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said.
More than 300,000 people are waiting for their asylum applications to be reviewed by government officers, compared with 16,000 in July 2012.
Many have been waiting three or four years for an interview, let alone a decision on their cases. While they can obtain work permits during that time, they can’t bring relatives to join them — meaning they may be separated for years from their spouses and children, who can be in danger overseas.
Immigration attorneys said the new plan was absurd and would only result in even longer delays for those in line the longest. They say the government handled cases similarly some years ago before a surge in arrivals on the U.S.-Mexico border, but many applicants didn’t get timely interviews and it didn’t deter people from seeking asylum.
“It is going to create a mess,” said Jason Dzubow, an immigration attorney in Washington. “Whatever number of cases they get per week, they can’t handle it.”
More staffers have been assigned to review asylum requests since the Trump administration scaled back the country’s refugee program, said L. Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“You have many frivolous cases, you have people who aren’t eligible at all, you have people who filed fraudulent cases, but you also have people with absolutely legitimate claims,” he said in an interview late last year in Los Angeles. “The fact that the backlog is so huge hurts them.”
There are two ways to seek asylum in the United States. Those who arrive on travel, student or other visas can file applications and be interviewed at a government office.
Those whose cases aren’t approved — as well as other immigrants facing deportation — can seek asylum before a judge in immigration court. But the court delays are as long or longer than those in the asylum offices.
The waits create stress and uncertainty for asylum seekers already are coping with learning to live in a new country and separation from family overseas.
A 34-year-old asylum seeker from Syria said he had a hard time getting an engineering job because employers could not tell how long he would be allowed to stay. He was torn about buying a house.
“There is uncertainty all over the place, and you literally are going to die if you go back,” said the man, who came on a student visa and asked not to be named out of fear of reprisals from the Trump administration and the Syrian regime. “You have to figure out all the legal ways, and you have to knock on all the doors.”
The delays may induce some immigrants to apply despite knowing they don’t qualify. They can work legally for several years before facing deportation proceedings and then wait years more for a hearing. Those in the country more than a decade may be able to seek approval for a special green card.
The backlog grew several years ago after tens of thousands of Central American children arrived on the border seeking asylum. Children are entitled to interviews at asylum offices, and the U.S. bumped their cases to the front of the line.
At the end of 2017, asylum officers were interviewing applicants in Southern California who filed their cases almost four years earlier.
The agency is receiving more asylum applications than it wraps up each month. In September, about 8,800 applications were filed and about 5,500 were completed, according to government data.
Immigration lawyers said they have seen asylum seekers divorce after years of separation or become homeless as their money was depleted while waiting for a work permit. The long waits also can weaken their cases if conditions change in their countries or witnesses die.
In some instances, asylum cases get stronger with time. Houman Varzandeh, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles, said his clients who fled religious persecution may have more evidence once they establish themselves in a church community than when they first arrived. But it can come at a tremendous personal price.
“I have people who are now getting divorced — the husband and wife don’t see each other,” he said. “How many years can you spend apart?”