BY: ANI KARAPETYAN
Addressing immigration-related issues has been at the core of President Trump’s promises, and the Administration has thus far used the end to justify the controversial means. With numerous immigration reform policies suggested or passed, one category of immigrants has suffered more than it has attracted attention. Besides the border wall, the travel ban, the crackdown on illegal immigrants and many more newsworthy actions, the Trump Administration has been waging a relatively less known war on asylum seekers.
Any foreign national arriving in or already residing in the US can seek asylum. One can obtain asylum through one of two possible ways: affirmatively through a USCIS asylum officer or defensively in removal proceedings before an immigration judge of the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review.
The U.S. Department of State’s data shows that after an increase in affirmative and defensive asylee numbers in 2009, the years following 2012 witnessed a significant decrease. The asylum application numbers started to rise again in 2016 with the affirmative asylum applications reaching an estimate of 115,399 filed only in 2016, a staggering 39 percent increase from the previous year and more than 100 percent increase since the 2014 recording of the seventh annual consecutive increase.
The situation corresponds to the recent and recurring crises in Central America as well as the global refugee and migrant crises. The increasing number of applications have naturally created a backlog, which the Obama Administration tried to resolve by reversing a 20-yearlong policy in 2014 and directing asylum officers to process the older cases first. After the 2016 elections, the new Administration started to change the guidelines and policies on asylum application processing, and began to expedite and increase the number of asylum deportations.
The first action by the Administration was to publish two executive orders and memoranda concerning asylum seekers. Issued in January 2017 and distributed to all asylum officers, the documents sought to speed up deportations by denying the asylum applications earlier in the process. The memorandum of the Department of Homeland Security included a requirement of credible evidence, which might turn the initial screening process into an actual asylum assessment and block many people’s access to seeking asylum and legal representation. There have even been recorded cases where asylum seekers crossing the border were sent away without their right to an interview.
A year after President Trump’s executive orders and DHS memoranda, USCIS has issued a new procedure of scheduling affirmative asylum interviews in an effort to manage the backlog; the procedure pushes the newest asylum applicants to the highest priority. The USCIS note, published in January 2018, established a priority system, which directs the asylum officers to review the earliest cases only after the rescheduled and newly submitted applications have been reviewed. Not only will the earlier submitted cases become third in the 3-point priority list, but the applications will also be reviewed in reverse chronological order.
The Administration explains the decision as a necessity to decrease the number of fraudulent applications that are submitted only to take advantage of the long wait to get employment authorization. The legitimate applicants, on average, wait five years for an interview and now will wait even longer due to the new, unclear priorities.
The prolonged processing time and reverse reviewing of the cases threaten many of the legitimate asylum seekers. Many legitimate applicants’ chances to secure witnesses and substantiate their claims significantly decreases with the prolonged timelines.
USCIS’ New York asylum office was reviewing the applications submitted in June 2015 before the publication of the Administration’s note on Affirmative Asylum Interview Scheduling. Does this mean that asylum seekers, who waited for three years for their cases to be scheduled, have to wait another three years for the reverse reviewing process to reach their applications? There is no evidence that the Trump Administration is increasing the number of asylum officers to tackle the backlog and decrease the wait time of the asylum applicants who are hit by the sudden reversal of the reviewing process.
Asylum seekers crossing the US border or already in the US are in a very vulnerable situation. The US is a signatory to the 1967 Protocols of the United Nations and has an obligation to protect foreign nationals who seek refuge from prosecution. The 2017 executive orders and memoranda, as well as the 2018 interview scheduling changes, subject asylum seekers to unnecessarily tough screenings, lengthy detention, unfair deportations and unknown waiting periods. The United States has the capacity to both secure its borders and contribute to addressing the global refugee crisis that brings many asylum seekers to its soil.
Ani Karapetyan holds a Master of Science degree in Global Affairs from New York University. She has received NYU provost’s Global Research Initiatives fellowship to analyze UN’s social and environmental accountability and has published Democracy and Civil Rights related articles.
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