According to the most recent data, as of “July 31, 2020, USCIS had 370,948 asylum applications, on behalf of 589,187 aliens, pending final adjudication.” “Over 94% of these pending applications [about 348,691 cases] are awaiting an interview by an asylum officer.” The remaining cases--approximately 22,257--have been interviewed and are waiting for a decision.

In terms of resources, the most recent information I could find is from May 2019. At that time, there were 763 Asylum Officers and 148 supervisory officers. While the majority of these staff members was devoted to interviewing affirmative asylum seekers, "over 200 officers" were assigned to conduct credible fear interviews at the border (a credible fear interview or CFI is an initial evaluation of asylum eligibility). Assuming everything remains the same (meaning that there are about 563 officers available for affirmative cases) and assuming each officer conducts eight interviews per week, it would take about 15 months to get through the entire backlog--if no new cases enter the system.

Realistically, though, new cases are continuously being filed, Asylum Officers probably can't adjudicate eight cases per week for 52 weeks a year, and--given the mess at the Southern border and President Elect Biden's plan to send more resources to that region--it is likely that many more than 200 officers will be assigned to CFIs (which will make them unavailable for "regular" affirmative asylum interviews). In short, even if the pandemic magically disappears, it seems unlikely that we can get through the backlog anytime soon. We are today facing the same problem that has dogged the asylum system since at least 2013: There are too many cases and not enough officers.

So what can be done?

Hire More Officers: One obvious solution is to hire more Asylum Officers. While the President Elect has not indicated whether or not he would hire more AOs, he has set forth an ambitious humanitarian agenda for the U.S.-Mexico border, and it seems impossible that he could fulfill that goal without hiring many more Asylum Officers. Of course, this would cost money, and it is unclear whether USCIS has the means to pay for more officers or whether Congress would be willing to increase the agency's budget.

More Efficient Scheduling and Shorter Interviews: The data I found (pre-pandemic) shows that roughly 8% of asylum applicants are "no shows" for their interviews and another 15% cancel their interviews (what percentage of these are rescheduled, I do not know). This makes sense, given the long gap between filing for asylum and attending an interview: People leave the U.S. or find other ways to obtain status here; others fail to update their address and so never receive notice of the interview. To mitigate this problem, Asylum Offices schedule more interviews than they have the capacity to conduct, with the expectation that some applicants will not appear. This seems to me a huge waste of energy. Why not call applicants a few weeks in advance to determine whether they intend to appear for their interview? This should be done after the interview notice is mailed out, and that notice should indicate that the applicant will receive a call from the Asylum Office. Applicants who fail to respond to the phone call can be rescheduled and sent a warning letter by mail. Those who still do not respond can then be referred directly to Immigration Court. Where possible, the calls and notices should be in the applicant's native language.

There are other benefits to calling applicants prior to the interview: They can be reminded to submit all evidence in advance, and can be queried about what language they will speak at the interview. They can also be told to review the I-589 form and determine in advance what updates and corrections are needed. Better yet, the asylum interview notice can include a form to update the I-589, which is often submitted years before the interview. While not all applicants will be able to complete such a form on their own, many can, and this will save significant time at the interview.

Another way to save time at the interview would be to include a copy of the "bar" questions along with the interview notice. The "bar" questions determine whether a person is barred from receiving asylum (because they are criminals or terrorists, for example). Why not require applicants to review these questions ahead of time, and then certify at the interview that they read and understood each question? Most people will answer "no" to all the bar questions, and if the officer has specific concerns, she can raise those at the interview. Also, while we're on the subject of bar questions, why do the officers need to ask these questions to children? I've seen officers question dependent children as young as three or four years old about whether they are terrorists. It's just plain silly (though it can be entertaining). We would save a lot of time and trouble if parents could answer these questions for their minor children, or at least for children under a certain age--say 14 or 15.

LIFO vs. FIFO: Another issue related to scheduling is The Great LIFO-FIFO Debate--whether cases should be interviewed in the order received (first-in, first-out or FIFO) or whether the newest cases should receive priority (last-in, first-out or LIFO). All Asylum Offices are currently operating under the LIFO system. The logic is that interviewing new cases first will deter fraudulent asylum seekers, since they won't be guaranteed a years-long wait for their interview (during which time they can live and work in the U.S.). The Asylum Division believes LIFO is working, as there was a 30% drop in new filings after it was implemented. However, I hope they will revisit this finding. My sense is that any decrease in filings was unrelated to the LIFO policy and instead came about for other reasons, such as fewer people arriving in the U.S. due to stricter visa requirements.

Also, from the perspective of asylum seekers, LIFO is very unfair. Old cases are given the lowest priority, meaning many people will (seemingly) never get to the front of the line. These applicants are facing severe hardships, including separation from family and endless uncertainty. At a minimum, a certain percentage of officers should be assigned to work on backlog cases, starting with the oldest. Better yet, we should return to FIFO and the Asylum Office Scheduling Bulletin, so we will have a more orderly and predictable process for scheduling interviews.

Create Rules for Expediting: One final point about scheduling interviews: We need a more formal system for expediting cases. Currently, it is possible to expedite, but there really are no rules about who is eligible to expedite or about what constitutes a valid reason to expedite. The predictable result is that many people try to expedite, which wastes Asylum Office staff time and also makes it more difficult for the most needy people to expedite their cases. There should be a national policy with publicized criteria about who is eligible for expedition. In my person opinion, the first priority should be people who are separated from their family members, especially minor children. For me, a distant second is a person with a documented mental or physical health issue. Until the Asylum Offices can expedite all the people in these two categories, I see no reason to allow for any other category of applicant to request expedited processing.

Premium Processing: A more radical idea to address the backlog--and one that I've been pushing for a while now--is premium processing for asylum seekers. Premium processing already exists for several USCIS forms, and allows an applicant to pay an additional fee (currently between $1,500 and $2,500) for faster processing of her case. Affirmative asylum seekers--in contrast to refugees--have paid their own way to the United States, and so presumably, many of them could afford an additional fee for premium processing. Also, while the idea of asylum seekers paying for their cases may seem unpalatable, the Trump Administration has already implemented a non-waivable $50 fee for all asylum applicants (as of now, that fee has been blocked by a federal court), and so the taboo of paying for humanitarian protection has already been broken. Thus, as I see it, there is no valid objection to implementing premium processing for asylum seekers, and--given the overwhelming humanitarian need--it is a solution whose time has come.

How would premium processing help? For those who pay, their cases would be interviewed more quickly. How quickly, I do not know, but premium processing for other USCIS forms is currently 15 days. I doubt that time frame would be realistic for an asylum case, but perhaps 60 or 90 days would be achievable. Even those who cannot pay would benefit, as the infusion of money into the system would benefit all applicants. An added benefit from the government's viewpoint would be that faster processing would--if we accept the LIFO logic--help discourage fraudulent applications. So premium processing is a win all around: For the applicants who pay, for those who do not pay, and for the U.S. government.

Eliminate the Asylum Office: A final idea--perhaps the most radical of all--is to eliminate the Asylum Office altogether, at least for most cases. Under the current system, an applicant files an asylum case, and if he loses, his case is usually referred to Immigration Court where an Immigration Judge reviews the case de novo and issues a brand new decision. As an advocate, I am grateful for a second chance to present my clients' cases. But in terms of "the system," this type of redundancy is not very efficient. One solution might be to shift all asylum cases where the applicant is out-of-status to the Immigration Court. Or maybe just leave vulnerable applicants--such as minors--at the Asylum Office. While this idea has been floating around for years, it is still unclear whether it would result in more or less efficiency. In any event, given the current mess, nothing should be off the table, and the idea of (mostly) eliminating the Asylum Office might warrant further study.

For the sake of asylum seekers and their families, and for the integrity of our humanitarian immigration system, we need major changes to the affirmative asylum system. Perhaps some of these ideas can contribute to that effort.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: