This post is by Andrea Barron, the Advocacy Program Manager at the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC International), based in Washington, DC.

President Biden has sent Congress a sweeping immigration bill that embraces America’s commitment to immigrants, a commitment the Trump Administration tried to destroy. The legislation outlines a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented individuals and provides $4 billion to Central American countries to reduce the violence and poverty that push so many to emigrate. It also increases the number of judges in immigration courts. These are welcome proposals.

But the bill promises little to torture survivors and other affirmative asylum seekers. It fails to address a hidden asylum crisis in our country, a crisis not as visible as the migrants being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Many torture survivors and thousands of other affirmative asylum seekers have been waiting four, five, and even six years to have their cases heard in the Asylum Office, a division of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Already traumatized by torture and persecution at home, the prolonged uncertainty about their status and separation from their families is a terrible psychological burden for survivors -- some have even become suicidal.

Most affirmative asylum seekers enter the United States legally and then apply for asylum because of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a “particular social group,” like the LGBT community. Many are torture survivors who suffered extreme physical and psychological harm perpetrated by the repressive governments of countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cameroon, Uganda, Guinea, and Sudan in Africa, as well as in the Middle East, Latin America, and East Asia.

They include Eritreans who were hung upside down and beaten so severely that they lost their hearing and suffered permanent damage to their spines. Their “crime” could have been nothing more than writing an article criticizing their country’s brutal dictator. Torture treatment programs report that an estimated 50 to 90 percent of female survivors are victims of rape, a frequent form of torture used with female political dissidents to shame not only them but their families.

Genet Dire is a torture survivor from Ethiopia with my organization, TASSC International. In 2014 she was a 17-year-old elite runner on her way to Eugene, Oregon with the Ethiopian National Team to compete in the World Junior Championships. She might have qualified for the Olympics, but Genet gave up her Olympic dream and decided to defect at Dulles International Airport. Her family had been targeted by the regime and she thought she could be next.

Genet applied for affirmative asylum in 2015, found a job in a Virginia chicken factory at $14 an hour, saved her money and even bought a house. She has been waiting six years for an interview with an asylum officer, while her Ethiopian friends who filed for asylum in 2019 have already been interviewed.

Some of these torture survivors are “essential workers” like physicians, nurses, and health aides combating the coronavirus pandemic. One is a medical doctor and epidemiologist who worked on a clinical trial of remdesivir, the antiviral medication used to treat severe cases of Covid. Another medical doctor took care of Covid patients 12 hours a day when hospitals were so overcrowded that patients had to sleep on the floor.

These torture survivors and other affirmative asylum seekers have waited years for their asylum interviews, with no end in sight. This is because USCIS has a backlog of over 370,000 affirmative asylum cases, representing nearly 600,000 people. There are not enough Asylum Officers at USCIS, and many of these officers do not interview affirmative asylum seekers. In 2018, the Trump Administration made matters worse when it perversely decided to prioritize interviews with newly arrived asylum seekers (called "last in, first out" or LIFO), relegating those like Genet, who have been waiting years, to the back of the line.

The Biden Administration and Congress can take two actions to reduce this backlog. First, they should tell USCIS to assign a specific number of Asylum Officers to interview exclusively affirmative asylum applicants. Hiring more officers could reduce the backlog even more quickly.

Second, USCIS should return to the pre-Trump system of scheduling interviews with asylum seekers in the order that their applications were filed (called "first in, first out" or FIFO). People who applied four or five years ago should be interviewed before those who applied in the last few months, which is the case now. No new legislation, executive order, regulation or additional funding is needed.

The Biden Administration says it wants to “restore humanity and American values to our immigration system” and ensure that the “United States remains a refuge for those fleeing persecution.” This is why the Administration and Congress--both Democrats and Republicans--should show torture survivors and other affirmative asylum seekers that they are a priority too.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: