As you might have noticed, USCIS offices have been closed for all in-person appointments--including asylum interviews and biometric appointments--since March 18, 2020. Now, USCIS has announced that it "is preparing some domestic offices to reopen and resume non-emergency public services on or after June 4." What does this mean? What will the "new normal" look like at USCIS? Are we all going to die?

The first thing I notice about the USCIS announcement is that it is kind-of vague. "Some domestic offices" will reopen? I am not sure what this means. I suppose we will have to wait and see which offices actually reopen. Also, "on or after June 4" could be next week or it could be in 2099. In any event, it seems clear that USCIS is trying to get things moving again. Indeed, one of my clients is scheduled for an interview on June 29 in the Arlington Asylum Office and I have heard of other applicants receiving notices for interviews there as well.

Second, it seems that the new interview process will be a bit different than what we are used to--

In accordance with social distancing guidelines, and due to the length of asylum interviews, asylum offices expect to conduct video-facilitated asylum interviews, where the applicants sit in one room and the interviewing officer sits in another room. Asylum offices will use available technology, including mobile devices provided by the agency, to ensure that the officer, applicant, interpreter and representative can fully and safely participate in the interview while maintaining social distancing.

This short description raises a few concerns related to (1) safety, (2) due process, and (3) security. In terms of safety, if the Asylum Officer is in his own room, that seems relatively safe, at least for the officer (though the officers still need to get to work and stay healthy in an environment with many coworkers). For the applicants, the situation is less clear. Presumably, they will have to wait in a waiting room. In normal times, we often spend considerable time waiting, as interviews are often delayed--sometimes for hours. I suppose applicants could be sent outside (to wander aimlessly?) and then contacted by phone when the officer is ready to see them. This would at least avoid overcrowding in the waiting area. Also, normally, asylum applicants have their fingerprints and photo taken when they check in to the interview. This often entails waiting in line while a staff member struggles with a fussy computer. Whether the offices have sufficient space to "social distance" while waiting to check in, I do not know.

During the interview, applicants are entitled to bring an interpreter and a lawyer. Will all those people share a room? No offense to my clients, but this is not very comforting. Will each of us have our own room? That seems to be the plan, at least in Virginia. Due to security concerns, Asylum Officers never left us unattended during interviews, even for a second, and so I am guessing that they will need empty rooms to put us into. But the rooms won't be completely empty, since we will need video equipment (and hopefully chairs), and so I am not sure how that will work. Also, what stops us from leaving the room and wandering the halls of the Asylum Office (I myself might go in search of the mythical room where all my lost files are located). And where are they going to get all those empty rooms? My guess is that the "new normal" will involve far fewer interviews than the old normal, but I suppose the powers-that-be figure some interviews are better than none.

Another concern is due process. Asylum seekers are entitled to a fair procedure. I know from my experience in Immigration Court that video hearings are more difficult and less fair than in-person hearings, and I imagine the same will be true of asylum interviews. There is much that is easier in person. For example, at the beginning of the interview, the officer reviews the I-589 form and makes corrections. Sometimes, the officer wants to look at documents with the applicant. These things will be difficult to do if the officer and the applicant are in two different places. Also, if the lawyer, interpreter, and applicant are in different rooms, communication between them will be more challenging. Aside from this, it is simply more difficult to talk to a person by video (as we all now know from innumerable, interminable Zoom chats). This difficulty will be compounded if the applicant is wearing a mask, which may be necessary in the event she shares a room with her attorney or interpreter. All these protective measures will make it more difficult to interact with the Asylum Officer and will make an already stressful situation worse. In short, under the current circumstances, there will be significant barriers to receiving a fair adjudication.

An additional concern is security. Will the video equipment be secure, or might it be hacked by nefarious actors who want to harm asylum seekers? I do not know, but the federal government's track record here is mixed, and for people seeking asylum, confidentiality is an important concern.

How does USCIS plan to keep asylum applicants safe? The agency has issued the following guidelines for entering USCIS facilities--
  • Visitors may not enter a USCIS facility if they:
    • Have any symptoms of COVID-19, including cough, fever or difficulty breathing;
    • Have been in close contact with anyone known or suspected to have COVID-19 in the last 14 days; or
    • Have been individually directed to self-quarantine or self-isolate by a health care provider or public health official within the last 14 days.
  • Visitors may not enter the facility more than 15 minutes prior to their appointment (30 minutes for naturalization ceremonies).
  • Hand sanitizer will be provided for visitors at entry points.
  • Members of the public must wear facial coverings that cover both the mouth and nose when entering facilities. Visitors may be directed to briefly remove their face covering to confirm identity or take their photograph. There will be markings and physical barriers in the facility; visitors should pay close attention to these signs to ensure they follow social distancing guidelines.
  • Individuals are encouraged to bring their own black or blue ink pens.

My local office (Arlington) announced that telephonic appearances are not permitted for applicants because the Asylum Office must check identification. Also, the Asylum Office does not have any procedures for attorneys to appear telephonically (strange, since they do have telephones). All documents must be submit at least 72 hours before the interview, as there is apparently a new policy that requires 72 hours to pass before anyone can touch incoming mail. Finally, the Asylum Office will have a "very liberal" rescheduling policy, and so applicants can reschedule by email. Whether these same changes will apply at other offices, I do not know, but I imagine that all offices will follow similar procedures.

Like every other organization trying to reopen, USCIS is engaged in a difficult balancing act. How can they fulfill their mission and keep people safe? In my opinion, at the moment, they cannot do both. Given all the restrictions and contortions needed to make interviews happen, I expect they will only be able to interview a token few applicants. Under those circumstances, I do not see how it is worthwhile to endanger their staff and clientele (and anyone who comes into contact with them).

On the other hand, I know that many asylum seekers would be willing to take the risk. Not because they are reckless, but because they are so desperate to have their cases resolved and to reunite with family members. I can't blame them for this.

There is no easy resolution to the dilemma. I hope USCIS will move cautiously, and I hope they will be able to keep people safe and provide them with fair interviews. We shall see.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: