Family separation takes many forms in the U.S. immigration system. By the time public outcry forced the Trump Administration to halt its explicit family separation policy in June 2018, it had taken 5,400 children from their parents. But over the last decade, to little notice, preventable delays in asylum processing have torn apart hundreds of thousands of families.
More than 386,000 asylum seekers are caught in the asylum backlog. Most endure prolonged family separation, economic deprivation, and the grinding fear that they will be deported back to their homelands where they would face persecution, torture, or death. Of the many gruesome anti-refugee policies instituted by the Trump Administration, the backlog is not as visible as border family separations or as lethal as Remain in Mexico. But its human toll is enormous. Doing away with the asylum backlog should be a priority for the Biden Administration.
Human Rights First’s new report, Protection Postponed: Asylum Office Backlogs Cause Suffering, Separate Families, and Undermine Integration, proposes concrete steps the Biden Administration should take to resolve this crisis. Asylum seekers affected by the backlog also describe the cruelty of this government-created problem in their own words.
Ali*, a Yemeni asylum seeker who has been waiting for an interview since 2015, was forced to leave behind his young son and wife. “Applying for asylum means you’ve already lost everything. And now you just keep waiting, waiting, waiting. This is almost the hardest part because there is absolutely nothing you can do.”
Ibrahim fled Pakistan in 2015 after facing life-threatening persecution for his work as a human rights activist. He believed the United States would allow him to explain the danger he was fleeing, grant him asylum, and swiftly bring his family to safety. Six years on, he hasn’t been assigned an interview date and his family remains in danger abroad. Unable to travel internationally or bring his family here, he mourns the years apart from his wife and children. “I have lost my children – even if I see them again, I will never have those years back.”
In 2015, Paul was outed as an LGBTQ man in Cameroon, where being gay is punishable by death. He was forced to flee, leaving behind his three young children and wife. Expecting the United States would protect him, he believed he would be reunited with his family within months. He has yet to be assigned a date to present his case for asylum. “When I left, my children were barely old enough to talk. Now they are people with real personalities and opinions. Because of the asylum backlog, I have missed out on their childhoods. But I don’t have a choice; if I go back to Cameroon, I will be killed, and the U.S. government has not yet given me permission to bring them here.”
Although U.S. law requires asylum interviews to be conducted within 45 days of filing an asylum application, Human Rights First’s clients caught in the backlog have been waiting an average of four years, and some much longer. Nearly every client interviewed for Protection Postponed said uncertainty was one of the worst consequences of the backlog. Dr. Melba Sullivan, a staff psychologist at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, says prolonged delays in asylum adjudication is an “ongoing stressor” that can exacerbate asylum seekers’ existing traumas.
Sophie, an asylum seeker from Burkina Faso who was subjected to female genital mutilation and years of domestic violence, has struggled to cope with uncertainty as her wait in the backlog approaches five years. “Today, I’m not sure if I am distressed because of my abuse or because I have been waiting for an answer in my case for so long. It is difficult for me to know whether my panic attacks are due to bad memories from the past or due to anxieties I have about my current situation.”
Leila sought asylum during the Obama Administration after the Iranian government canceled her passport as reprisal for exposing government censorship. “The human mind understands time – the passage of days and years,” she says. “But when we don’t know how far we need to look into the future to have an answer, or how long we must wait until we can see our families, this is frightening and painful. The human mind is not made to work this way.”
Several other asylum seekers said they had for years avoided building personal relationships in the U.S. and put off starting families out of fear that they would be separated from a spouse or children if they lose their asylum case.
Asylum seekers in the backlog also experience poverty and barriers to education and health care. They can’t access federal aid for higher education, obtain permanent work authorization, open a credit card, buy a home, or lease a car. Melissa, a refugee from Libya, is a doctor, but can’t return to school to obtain her U.S. medical credentials because her lack of permanent status makes her ineligible for financial support. Luis, a Venezuelan asylum seeker, contracted COVID-19 while working as a ride-share driver. After missing three months of work and spending sixteen days in intensive care, Luis learned he was ineligible for the federal stimulus and unemployment benefits because he and his wife Manuela lacked permanent legal status. Exhausted and dispirited, Manuela told us, “sometimes it feels more difficult to survive here than in Venezuela.” Amal, a photographer and human rights activist from Yemen, laments being unable to return to school, lease a car, or apply for a credit card. “These small things could make our lives easier, but asylum seekers waiting for their interviews can’t access them. I am in limbo.”
Several factors have contributed to the growth of the asylum backlog. Globally, the number of forcibly displaced people doubled from 40 million in 2011 to over 80 million in 2020. Increasing violence, repression, and instability in Central America and Venezuela have created hundreds of thousands of new refugees seeking protection in the United States. As the need for protection grew, the Obama Administration, and then the Trump Administration, used expedited removal under which asylum officers screen migrants at the southern border to determine whether they fear returning to their countries or may be quickly deported without a hearing. The continued use of expedited removal has diverted hundreds of officers away from interviews for asylum. The Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP)—which forced asylum seekers to remain in dangerous conditions in Mexico while they waited for their asylum hearings—also needlessly occupied asylum officers. When the Trump Administration diverted 89 percent of asylum officers to the border to implement MPP, few remained available to process backlogged cases.
The Biden Administration has the power to take three critical steps to erase the backlog and provide certainty to asylum seekers. First, it should stop the use of expedited removal and direct asylum officers to adjudicate pending asylum applications. Second, the United States Citizen and Immigration Services should implement a fair, fast, and uniform process for scheduling cases that prioritize cases that have been pending the longest, asylum seekers with family who face danger abroad, and those with pressing humanitarian or medical concerns. Third, the Biden Administration should ensure the Asylum Division is adequately staffed and funded. Mere diligence would go a long way: hundreds of funded asylum officer positions are unfilled.
The Biden Administration has taken concrete steps to alleviate the suffering of some asylum seekers and has begun the work of building a fairer asylum system. But with hundreds of thousands of lives hanging in the balance, the need to act on the backlog is urgent.
In the face of years spent in legal limbo, asylum seekers show remarkable resilience and hope. Ali believes that receiving asylum would mean a new life: “I would be born again. I would be able to live with my family for the first time in five years, and finally be able to hold them and take care of them again.” Alexander, a refugee from Russia who has waited more than five years for an interview, looks to the new administration with optimism. “I still believe the United States is a country of laws, and the laws will work for the good of the people. I hope no other families will have to endure what we have experienced.”
Leila looks forward to having permanent status so that she can travel to see her children and feel safe for the first time in six years. “Right now, I have two IDs. One is a work permit; the other says, ‘asylum pending.’ If I win my asylum case, I will have a new ID, but I will also have a new identity. I will no longer be someone who might stay or might go. I will be able to just be.”
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of asylum seekers with pending cases.
By Anika Ades
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