Earlier this month, United States Citizenship and Immigration Service ("USCIS") issued a news release touting its accomplishments for FY 2019, which ended on September 30, 2019 (a belated Happy FY 2020 to all!). According to the agency, "FY 2019 has been a historic year for USCIS and we have achieved many of President Trump’s goals to make our immigration system work better for America." Here, we'll take a look at some of USCIS's "accomplishments" and explore what that means for asylum seekers.

First, I can't help but note the hostility towards Congress and towards asylum seekers expressed in the news release and by Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli. Here are a couple quotes--
In the face of congressional inaction, we’ve taken significant steps to mitigate the loopholes in our asylum system, combat fraudulent claims and strengthen the protections we have in place to preserve humanitarian assistance for those truly in need of it.

Absent congressional action to provide targeted fixes to our immigration system, USCIS rushed personnel and resources to our southern border and implemented a number of significant policy changes and reforms designed to help reduce the loopholes in our nation’s asylum system that allowed for crisis levels of abuse and exploitation.

USCIS is correct that Congress has failed to pass comprehensive (or partial) immigration reform, which has been sorely needed for years. However, to blame only Congress, without considering the erratic leadership (or lack thereof) from the Executive Branch looks like a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Also, USCIS again points to "loopholes" and "crisis levels of abuse and exploitation" without specifying what that means. Clearly, the Acting Director wants to deter asylum seekers from coming here, but that is a separate question from whether asylum seekers themselves are exploiting loopholes or abusing the system.

USCIS points to two major policy reforms for FY 2019. The first is the Migrant Protection Protocols ("MPP"), which were designed to stop asylum seekers from "attempting to game the immigration system." Again, evidence that anyone is "gaming the system" is lacking. "Under MPP, aliens attempting to enter the U.S. from Mexico without proper documentation may be returned to Mexico to wait outside of the U.S. during their immigration proceedings." Sadly, the MPP has done real damage to our asylum system and to our nation's moral standing. The program has forced thousands of people to wait in tents in Mexico, where they are subject to violence and extortion at the hands of cartels, which have a powerful presence near the border. Also under the MPP, asylum seekers are routinely and blatantly denied due process of law.

The other major policy reform is the Third Country Transit Asylum Rule, which is designed to--
enhance the integrity of the asylum process by placing further restrictions or limitations on eligibility for aliens who seek asylum in the United States. Specifically, with limited exceptions, the rule bars aliens, who entered along the southern border, from receiving asylum in the U.S. if they did not apply for asylum in at least one other country they transited through. This rule aims to mitigate the crisis at the border by better identifying and serving legitimate asylum seekers.

Like the MPP, this rule degrades (and arguably violates) our asylum system by forcing asylum seekers who arrive at the Southern border to file for asylum in a country that they pass through on the way to the U.S. This might be fine if the countries in question were safe and had operating asylum systems of their own, but for the most part, they aren't and they don't. What I find most offensive about this pronouncement, though, is the last part--the claim that the policy "aims to mitigate the crisis at the border by better identifying and serving legitimate asylum seekers." It does no such thing. Instead, the rule arbitrary seeks to block all asylum seekers by forcing them to seek protection in third countries. There is no effort to distinguish legitimate asylum seekers from those who are somehow not legitimate (whatever that means). Why USCIS can't simply say this, and be honest about their goal of making asylum more difficult for everyone, I do not know.

The news release also gives us some statistics. "In FY 2019, the Asylum Division received more than 105,000 credible fear cases – over 5,000 more than in FY 2018 and a new record high." A credible fear interview or CFI is an initial evaluation of asylum eligibility. People who arrive at a border or an airport and request asylum receive a CFI. If they "pass," they are referred to an Immigration Judge for a full asylum hearing. If they "fail," they are removed from the U.S. The fact that USCIS performed a record number of CFIs signals that the government's deterrent efforts are not working. If people were being deterred from coming to the U.S. for asylum, we should see lower numbers of CFIs.

Another statistic relates to hiring--
In FY 2019, USCIS executed an ambitious plan to hire 500 staff for the Asylum Division by the end of December 2019 to reach authorized staffing levels. New strategies are in development to more specifically target individuals with relevant experience and skill sets, including those with prior military and law enforcement expertise.

The Asylum Division has been "staffing up" for probably half a dozen years, and whether they expect to actually achieve their goal this time, they do not say. If so, this could help reduce the asylum backlog, which would be good news. On the other hand, the idea that they are recruiting people with "law enforcement expertise" rather than human rights experience, points to the type of candidate they may be seeking.

Also in FY 2019, the "Asylum Division trained and deployed U.S. Border Patrol agents and USCIS officers from outside the Asylum Division to supplement staffing on the southern border and assist with the Asylum Division’s workload." Whether Border Patrol agents and USCIS officers have the training necessary to properly do Asylum Division work is an open question, and is an issue of concern for advocates. I personally have my doubts. But on the positive side, I suppose it will free up "real" Asylum Officers to do more affirmative cases.

Finally, the news release discusses some plans for FY 2020. One point of interest for asylum seekers is that USCIS plans to continue the transition to on-line filing, and will make it possible to e-file the I-589 asylum form. If done properly, this would be a great benefit to asylum seekers, since it would make filing easier and more reliable, and would hopefully avoid the problem of USCIS losing documents, which has been a big issue in the past. Given all the bad news from USCIS, let's end here, with happy thoughts of e-filing in FY 2020.