Mahir Ahmed really wants you to know that he's a "legitimate" asylum seeker. Not like those other people who are "deliberately breaking U.S. laws" and "jumping in line" ahead of good people like him. To confront this crisis, which has delayed a decision in his case, Mr. Ahmed declares his support for President Trump's border wall.

I have some sympathy for Mr. Ahmed 's frustration at the slow pace of his case, since many of my clients are similarly delayed. But his desire to slam the door on certain asylum seekers who he considers illegitimate demonstrates a deep ignorance of our asylum system, not to mention a profound arrogance about his own moral standing.

First, let's take a look at Mr. Ahmed's "legitimate" asylum case. Mr. Ahmed is from Ethiopia. He was born Muslim, in a "community that is virtually 100 percent Muslim." After he came to the U.S. (legally!), he converted to Christianity. He writes that his "decision to leave and criticize Islam publicly forced me to resort to asylum."

As an asylum lawyer, I have done apostasy cases from many countries. In some places, apostasy is illegal, and can be punished by death. Ethiopia is not one of those places. In fact, Ethiopia is mostly Christian, and while Mr. Ahmed's community may be "virtually 100 percent Muslim," his country is only 34% Muslim. This means internal relocation is a real possibility. If Mr. Ahmed can live safely in some other part of Ethiopia, he is ineligible for asylum. Further, it is unlikely that Mr. Ahmed fears persecution from the Ethiopian authorities, and so if the government can protect him from his Muslim community, he would also be ineligible for asylum. This is not to say that his claim is illegitimate, but an apostate from a country like Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan might consider Mr. Ahmed to be unfairly blocking up the asylum system when he could potentially live safely in his own country. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Or something like that.

Now let's take a look at some of Mr. Ahmed's claims about these "law breaking" asylum seekers who have supposedly delayed the decision in his case. In fact, Mr. Ahmed was one of the lucky asylum seekers who received an interview quickly, based on LIFO. The Asylum Officer told him to return two weeks after the interview to collect his decision. Mr. Ahmed was excited: "You can imagine how thrilled I was knowing that no matter what the decision was, it would all be over within two months of filing. No more worrying, wondering, and being in limbo." But then, the Officer called and informed Mr. Ahmed that he could not pick up the decision after all; it would come by mail. He "was told they have no idea when [the decision would be made] and that the fact that I had legal status might be a factor in the delay since priority is being given to illegal immigrants." Mr. Ahmed was shocked: "I couldn’t believe that illegal immigrants would be given higher priority than someone who followed the law. It just seemed unfair to me that jumping in line would put you ahead." More than seven months later, Mr. Ahmed is still waiting for a decision.

After doing a bit of research, Mr. Ahmed found that since the time he filed his case, "more than 460,000 illegal crossings took place" at the Southern border. The "vast majority of the crossers claimed asylum and basically got priority processing over everyone who filed their cases legally, myself included." "That is exactly why I’m for the border wall," he writes. "True asylum seekers will still be able to file for asylum at the ports of entry [and] maybe even in their home countries soon," if a proposed anti-asylum bill becomes law.

There's a lot to unpack here, and we only have time to address the major points of Mr. Ahmed's thesis. Let's start with his data--the 460,000 "illegal crossings." If you look at his source for this number (Customs and Border Protection or CBP), you will see that this figure represents people "apprehended between points of entry" from October 2018 through April 2019. While Mr. Ahmed writes that the "vast majority" of these border crossers claimed asylum, a review of the latest asylum office data reveals a different story. During this period, about 70,000 people sought credible or reasonable fear interviews, which indicates their desire to apply for asylum at the U.S. border (this is an estimate since the asylum office data is not as current as the CBP data). Thus, even assuming Mr. Ahmed is correct that these "illegal crossers" are jumping ahead of him in line, the number of line jumpers is "only" about 70,000; not 460,000.

Regardless of the statistics, Mr. Ahmed misses a more fundamental point: The law makes no distinction between "legal" and "illegal" asylum seekers. It is legal to arrive at the border (at a point of entry or elsewhere) and seek asylum. It is also legal to enter the U.S. without inspection and file for asylum. The relevant legal statute, INA § 208(a)(1), states that "Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival....), irrespective of such alien's status, may apply for asylum." And so these "illegal immigrants" that so concern Mr. Ahmed have the exact same legal right to file for asylum as he does.

Do "illegal immigrants" jump ahead of the line? Do they get priority over "legal immigrants," such as Mr. Ahmed? In one sense, they do. When an alien arrives at the border and expresses a fear of return, she receives a credible fear interview or CFI (or if she was previously in the U.S., she receives a reasonable fear interview). This is an initial evaluation of asylum eligibility. Such interviews receive priority over "regular" asylum cases. The large number of CFIs in recent years is a major contributor to the backlog of asylum cases. In Mr. Ahmed's case, however, he received an interview within a few months of filing. In other words, his case did not fall into the backlog. Thus, unlike other asylum seekers who filed and did not receive a timely interview, Mr. Ahmed's case was not delayed due to "illegal immigrants" receiving CFIs.

Even for those "regular" asylum seekers who land in the backlog, I do not see how they have much basis to complain about CFIs. This is the system our country created to enforce its humanitarian immigration law. CFIs get priority because those applicants must either be approved and sent to Immigration Court for a full asylum hearing, or denied and deported quickly. If anything, people seeking asylum at the border need more protection than asylum applicants who are already in the U.S., since the latter are in no immediate danger of being returned to a country where they face persecution. As such, it makes sense to adjudicate CFIs first.

Mr. Ahmed also claims that a decision in his case was delayed because USCIS gives priority to "illegal immigrants." He references a USCIS webpage, which indicates that "longer processing times may be required if you... are currently in valid immigration status." First of all, this website lists several different reasons for post-interview delay, including "pending security checks" and headquarters review, which are common reasons for post-interview delay (especially, as far as I can tell, for cases involving Muslim--or formerly Muslim--men). Second, the reason a "legal" immigrant's case may be slower than that of an "illegal" immigrant is because it requires more work to deny such a case. People in legal status receive a detailed Notice of Intent to Deny letter. People who are out of status receive a much less detailed Referral letter. Since it takes more work to create a NOID, it makes sense that such cases takes longer. A final note on this point: I have done many cases for people who are in status, out of status, and who have entered the U.S. illegally. At least in my anecdotal experience, I see no pattern of differences in processing times, and so I doubt that "illegal" cases are processed any faster than "legal" ones.

Based on his analysis, Mr. Ahmed endorses a border wall as a way to help "legitimate" asylum seekers like himself. But this "solution" has no relationship to the problem. If you want to prevent "illegal" aliens from seeking asylum, you need to change the law that allows such people to seek asylum. Perhaps by building a wall and increasing punitive measures, you can deter asylum seekers from coming here. This would help reduce the backlog (at the expense of our nation's integrity), but you could achieve the same ends (more cheaply) by simply blocking aliens from coming here legally. If fewer people come here, fewer will ask for asylum. Indeed, the Trump Administration is trying to make it more difficult to obtain a visa if you come from a country that tends to produce visa overstays (had it been in place when he came to the U.S., this rule may very well have blocked Mr. Ahmed from coming here).

The bottom line for me is this: Anyone who reaches the U.S. and fears return to his country is a legitimate asylum seeker, and deserves to have his case carefully reviewed. Mr. Ahmed's effort to distinguish himself from asylum applicants at the Southern border represents a basic misunderstanding of our country's humanitarian immigration system and the values that that system represents. This is a difficult time for asylum seekers, and sometimes, among desperate people, there is an inclination to attack each other. Mr. Ahmed should resist this temptation. Instead of undermining his fellow asylum seekers, he should stand together with them. By supporting each other, we can improve the asylum system for all.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: