I recently participated in a panel discussion at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, DC. The panel was hosted by Congresswoman Yvette Clarke and featured speakers from academia, non-profits, government, and the private bar. The introductory speaker was the Ambassador of Jamaica, who (to my surprise) knew more about asylum law than most immigration attorneys. The focus of the panel was on asylum seekers of African decent (so, generally, people from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America).

Déjà queue - The backlog is back. Or maybe it really never went away.

One purpose of the panel was to bring attention to asylum seekers and refugees from Africa and the African diaspora. According to Jana Mason of UNHCR, despite the recent turmoil in the Middle East, the plurality of the world's refugees and internally displaced people come from Africa. This is significant because in the United States, there is not a strong constituency to support these people (as there is for Cubans, for example). The result is that African and diaspora asylum seekers often receive less attention and less support than asylum seekers from other places. The CBC hopes to improve our government's policies towards African asylum seekers, and our panel was part of that effort.

Panel speakers also touched on issues that affect asylum seekers in the U.S. more generally. The most important comments in that regard came from John Lafferty, the Chief of the Asylum Division at USCIS, who spoke--among other things--about the backlog (for some background on the backlog, check out my previous post).

The statistics Mr. Lafferty cited were sobering: 55,000 affirmative asylum cases filed in FY 2014, over 50,000 credible fear interviews, and a nationwide backlog of 60,000 cases. USCIS estimates that it might take three to four years to resolve the backlog, and presumably that's only if unforeseen events don't cause additional delay.

One piece of good news is that USCIS has been working hard to deal with the situation. In the last year or so, they've grown from 273 asylum officers to 425 officers, and they plan to hire additional officers going forward. I must say that my experience with the new officers has been a bit mixed. Most are excellent--professional, courteous, knowledgeable, and fair. A few, though, seem to be unfamiliar with the law or with basic interview techniques. Hopefully, as they gain more experience, these kinks will be worked out (and hopefully not too many legitimate refugees will be denied asylum in the mean time).

Despite USCIS's efforts, the backlog has continued to grow. At this point, even if no new cases enter the system, it would take over one year to review all 60,000 cases. And of course, new cases continue to enter the system all the time. Given the large number of people stuck in the backlog, I'd like to offer a few suggestions on how to make life easier for those who are waiting:

, and I think most importantly, USCIS should give priority to applicants with family members who are overseas. This can be done in at least two ways: (1) Review existing I-589 forms, and where there is a spouse or child who is currently not in the U.S., give that case priority; and (2) when a backlogged case is (finally) approved, give priority to any I-730 petition for family members following to join.

, and this would probably require a legislative fix so maybe it is pie in the sky, for any case that USCIS knows will enter the backlog, allow the applicant to file immediately for her work permit (under existing law, the asylum applicant must wait 150 days before filing for a work permit).

, instead of issuing the work permit (called an employment authorization document or EAD) for one year, issue it for two years (or more). A two-year EAD would make life easier for asylum seekers. Renewing the permit every year is expensive and processing delays sometimes result in people losing their jobs and driver's licenses (which are tied to the EADs).

, devote more resources to backlogged cases, even if this means slowing down the process for newly-filed cases (backlogged cases have been skipped; USCIS processes new cases before backlogged cases). Even if only a few backlogged cases were being adjudicated, this would at least give hope to the thousands who are waiting without any sign of progress. Also, it would be helpful for people to have some sense of when their cases will be adjudicated. USCIS should endeavor to release as much information as available about their efforts to resolve the backlog. Given that each Asylum Office has its own website, perhaps the information could be posted there and updated regularly.

I recognize that USCIS's situation is difficult and unprecedented, and that they have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of new applications and credible fear interviews. But from my view of things, the situation for those who are waiting is pretty rough. These modest suggestions would help to mitigate the difficulty for the most seriously affected, and would give some hope and relief to the others.

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