If you are an asylum seeker who filed an affirmative asylum case between about January 2013 and October 2013, you probably have not yet been interviewed, and your case has--seemingly--disappeared into a black hole. Meanwhile, other asylum seekers who filed after you are being interviewed and receiving decisions. So what gives?

The storage room for backlogged asylum cases.

As best as I can tell, in early 2013, the asylum offices nationwide essentially stopped hearing cases. The reason is because there was an influx of asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border. People who arrive without a visa at the border, and who request asylum, are detained. They then have a "credible fear interview" to determine whether they might qualify for asylum. If they pass the interview, they are generally released and told to return later to present their asylum case to an Immigration Judge.

Because of the large increase in the number of people arriving at the US/Mexico border (and being detained), the Department of Homeland Security shifted Asylum Officers from across the country to the border. DHS prioritized the border cases because those people were detained. Of course, detaining so many people is very expensive; it is also not so nice for the people who are detained. Assuming that no additional resources were available, I suppose it is difficult to argue with DHS's decision to give priority to the border cases.

To deal with the increased demand, DHS also began hiring new Asylum Officers. The word on the street was that they planned to hire 90 to 100 new officers nationwide (which is quite significant) and that they would be trained and ready before the new year. Sure enough, we started to receive interview notices for our clients sometime in October (most of our clients interview at the Arlington, Virginia Asylum Office). Since October, our clients generally wait from one to three months from the time we submit the application to the date of the interview. That's the good news.

But since they started hearing cases again, the Asylum Offices have been scheduling people on a last-in, first-out basis. In other words, cases filed after October 2013 are being heard, while cases filed between January 2013 and October 2013 are stuck in the "backlog." There are two issues I want to discuss about the backlogged cases: (1) Whether there is anything that can be done if your case is backlogged; and (2) Why isn't DHS doing the cases in the order received?

First, there are a few things you can try if your case is backlogged. For one thing, if 150 days have passed since you filed your asylum application, you can file for a work permit.

If you want to expedite your case, there is a procedure (at least in Arlington) to request an expedited interview. However, there are a number of problems with this procedure. The most serious problem is that it does not seem to work. When you request an expedited interview, your name is placed on a list. If another asylum applicant cancels her interview, you (theoretically) will be given her time slot. The problem is that not many people cancel their interviews, and many people are on the expedited list. Also, if you happen to get an expedited interview, you will have very little notice, and so there may be insufficient time to prepare.

Another possibility to expedite a case is to contact the USCIS Ombudsman. This is the government office that tries to assist immigrants and asylum seekers with their cases, and I have used it successfully a few times (though not for asylum cases). While I have a very high opinion of this office, its ability to expedite cases seems quite limited. One example of where it might be effective is if you have requested an expedited date due to a serious health problem (of you or a family member). After you have made the expedite request with the Asylum Office, and if that office does not expedite the case, the Ombudsman might be able to assist. In short, while the Ombudsman might be helpful for certain situations, it will probably not be able to assist in most cases.

I suppose you could also try contacting a Congressperson, holding a sit-in or going on a hunger strike. I doubt any of these methods will be effective, but it you have luck, please let me know.

The second issue I want to discuss is the logic behind DHS's decision to hear new cases before backlogged cases. I have the impression (from talking to several people on the inside) that there was a heated debate within the government about how to deal with this issue. It seems there are several reasons why DHS decided to hear new cases before backlogged cases.

The main reason for hearing new cases first seems to be that DHS fears an influx of fraudulent cases. The logic goes like this: If cases are heard in order, delays will ripple through the system, and the average processing time for a case will dramatically increase. Cases will take much longer, but applicants will continue to receive their employment document six months after filing. This will create an incentive for aliens to submit fraudulent applications, which will further clog the system. By hearing new cases first, processing times are faster (except for the people left behind), and the incentive to file a fraudulent case and obtain a work permit is reduced.

Tied to this fear of more fraudulent cases is a fear of Congress. The House recently held hearings on asylum, and there is a general (and probably accurate) belief that the ultimate aim of these hearings is to restrict asylum. DHS believes that increased delays (and thus increased incentives for fraud) in the asylum system will make it easier for the Congress to pass more restrictive laws related to asylum. In other words, DHS does not want to play into the hands of the restrictionists by increasing processing times for asylum cases.

Finally, there is a general belief at DHS that delays are not all that damaging to applicants stuck in the backlog because such people at least have their work permits. If you forget about the stress and uncertainty, it is true that single applicants without children can work and live in the U.S. while their cases are pending. But for people who are waiting to be reunited with family members--especially when those family members are in dangerous or precarious situations--the delays can be deadly.

So that is the basic situation, at least as far as I can tell. Next time, I will discuss some possible solutions to the problem.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.