It’s the season of miracles. One day’s worth of oil burns for eight days. A child is born to a virgin mother. The Eagles will return to the Super Bowl. OK, that last one is probably a bridge too far, but I know miracles happen because the asylum backlog is shrinking. Yes, shrinking.

As usual in asylum world, the news is not quite so straightforward, but let’s look at the newest data from the Asylum Division and try to break down what’s happening. The most recent report covers the months of July, August, and September 2018. The number of asylum cases pending in the United States is shown in the chart below:
July 2018 320,663
August 2018 320,314
September 2018 319,202
So between July and September 2018, the backlog shrank by 1,461 cases, or about 0.5%. Prior to July, the backlog was still increasing, though for a few months growth had been pretty flat. This means that more cases are being completed than are being filed.

The first question is, Why is this happening? Looking at the data, it seems that the main reasons are that the number of new cases being filed is down and the number of cases being interviewed is up. Between July and September 2018, there were 23,257 new asylum cases filed. For the same period in 2017, there were 30,804 new cases filed. This represents a decrease of nearly 25%. Also, between July and September 2018, the Asylum Offices conducted 19,573 interviews. For this period in 2017, they conducted 15,405 interviews. Thus, the number of cases interviewed has increased by about 27%. The total number of cases completed during this time frame has also increased, from 16,852 in 2017 to 24,695 in 2018, an increase of almost 47%.

Why have the number of new cases gone down? The most obvious answer is that fewer people are able to get to the United States. Between the “Muslim ban,” the generally hostile attitude towards foreigners, and the Trump Administration's machinations at the border, it is more difficult for people to come to our country. For example, in September 2017, the State Department issued 652,035 non-immigrant visas worldwide. During September 2018, the State Department issued 620,158 visas, which represents about a 5% decrease. However, for countries that "send" us asylum seekers, the drop appears much more dramatic. Take Venezuela, the top source country for asylum seekers. The number of B visas issued for Venezuelans dropped from 1,861 in September 2017 to 1,060 in September 2018, a drop of 43%. If fewer people are coming here, especially from troubled countries, it stands to reason that we will see fewer asylum applications.

Also, the Trump Administration has made its attitude towards non-Americans quite clear. It has also ginned up hostility and anger more generally. In a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face, I suppose making our country a less attractive place to live means that fewer people will want to come here.

Why have the number of interviews gone up? One explanation is that fewer Asylum Division resources are being deployed to the border, and so this is freeing up officers to interview affirmative asylum applicants.

Anyone who arrives at the border (or an airport) and who states that they need protection should receive a Credible Fear Interview (an initial evaluations of asylum eligibility). These interviews are conducted by Asylum Officers. When the officers are doing CFIs, they are not working on "regular" asylum cases. The large number of CFIs is widely believed to have led to the backlog. However, here we run into an anomaly. In FY2017, Asylum Officers issued 79,710 CFI decisions. In FY2018, they issued 97,728 decisions, an increase of nearly 23%. Somehow, despite a significant increase in CFIs, the Asylum Division managed to process more affirmative cases.

My guess is that this "anomaly" is the result of increased people power. The Asylum Division has hired large numbers of Officers who deal exclusively with CFIs. Many of these Officers perform interviews remotely (there is an office in Arlington, Virginia dedicated to CFIs). So perhaps this explains how the Asylum Division was able to make progress on affirmative cases while still processing large numbers of CFIs.

Aside from hiring more Officers, the Asylum Division has tried to increase productivity by identifying cases that have been filed more than 10 years after the applicant arrived in the United States, and to offer those applicants an opportunity to skip the interview and go directly to Immigration Court. Some applicants have filed asylum primarily as a vehicle to get into court, where they will seek other relief (usually Cancellation of Removal). However, the impact of this plan seems fairly marginal. The number of cases referred to court without an interview during the three-month period was 1,275 in 2017 and 1,680 in 2018. The total number of cases referred to Immigration Court based on a filing deadline referral (i.e., the applicant missed the one-year asylum-filing deadline, failed to demonstrate an exception to the rule, and probably received a truncated interview) was 5,138 in 2017 and 6,684 in 2018. Also, the number of “no shows” increased from 2,072 in 2017 to 3,040 in 2018. Collectively, all this probably made a modest contribution to increased productivity.

All this leads to the final, and probably most important question: How will all this affect people who are stuck in the backlog? I think the answer here is, It depends.

First and most obviously, it depends on whether this trend continues. I think there is good reason to believe that the trend will continue. Between the Trump Administration's efforts to block people from coming to the U.S. and the Asylum Division's seeming ability to simultaneously process CFIs and affirmative cases, I expect we will see continued progress on the backlog.

Second, it depends on which particular Asylum Office we are talking about. Some offices are dealing with their backlogs better than others. For example, in September 2018, some offices completed more cases than they received (Chicago, Los Angeles, Newark, and New York). Other offices received more cases than they completed (Arlington, Boston, Houston, Miami, New Orleans, and San Francisco). This changes month-to-month, and so it is difficult to guess how a particular case will ultimately fare, but you can see the data for yourself and make your own predictions.

Of course, all this can change quickly, depending on the state of the world, our government's policies, and the ability of the Asylum Division to keep pace with new cases. But for now at least, the backlog is shrinking. For those stuck waiting, I suppose that is a rare bit of good news.

Originally posted on the Asylumis: