Under President Trump, the Department of Homeland Security engaged in a systematic campaign to separate families at the United States-Mexico border. The victims of that policy are still grappling with its traumatic effects. But the Trump Administration's cruel approach towards migrants is not the only example of family separation that continues to affect people in the U.S. immigration system.

Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers have fled their home countries and come to the United States for protection. These include democracy activists, journalists, religious minorities, women's rights advocates, sexual minorities, and interpreters who served with U.S. troops.

In many cases, these people have been forced to leave family members behind, often in difficult and dangerous conditions. If they are granted asylum, applicants can file to bring their immediate relatives--spouse and minor children--to the United States. However, the process is very lengthy. Many applicants wait five, six or more years for a decision in their case. For those who finally receive asylum, the process of bringing family members to the U.S. can take another one to two years. Because of all these delays, most asylum seekers can expect to be separated from their loved ones for the better part of a decade.

To understand the problem, it is important to know something about the asylum system. Asylum seekers in the United States fall into one of two categories. Non-citizens who arrive in the U.S. and who fear persecution in their home country file an "affirmative" asylum application and have their cases adjudicated by USCIS at an Asylum Office. People in removal proceedings file asylum as a "defense" to deportation, and an Immigration Judge determines whether they qualify for protection.

According to the latest information from DHS (from July 2020), there are 370,948 affirmative asylum cases pending with the Asylum Office. Data for defensive cases is more difficult to come by. As of January 2021, there were 1,294,797 total cases pending in the nation's Immigration Courts. The government does not provide information about how many of those cases include a claim for asylum. But we can extrapolate from a FY2017 report, in which 21.8% of court cases involve such a claim, and conclude that about 282,266 defensive asylum cases are pending in Immigration Court (this number strikes me as very conservative; I suspect that far more than 21.8% of court cases include a claim for asylum). Added together, we have 653,214 affirmative and defensive asylum cases awaiting a decision in the United States. Historically, about 33.3% of asylum cases are approved, and so we can expect that 217,520 pending cases will be granted... eventually.

How many of those cases involve family separation? Again, government data is spotty. The most recent information on petitions filed to reunite families (from FY2017 through FY2019) shows that for every 100 people granted asylum, there are about 28.5 family members who "follow to join" the principal applicant. Thus, for currently pending asylum cases, we can expect about 53,057 family members to join their asylee relatives in the United States. Given the long delays for asylum cases and for follow-to-join petitions, it will be years before these family members reunite with their asylum-seeker relatives in the U.S.

My client RJ is one example of an asylum seeker waiting to reunite with his family. RJ filed for asylum in June 2016. He is from Afghanistan, where he worked as a contractor with the U.S. military. Because of his affiliation with Westerners, the Taliban perceived RJ as an "infidel" and a "puppet" of the Americans. They threatened him with death. Since the Taliban harm and kill many Afghans who cooperate with the United States, RJ took the threats seriously. He already had a U.S. visa through his job, which allowed him to come here to escape harm. His wife and children could not get visas, and so before he left Afghanistan, RJ moved them to a hidden location where he hoped they would be safe.

RJ's plan was to obtain asylum in the U.S. and then have his family join him here. Unfortunately, things did not work out that way.

At the time RJ filed his case, the Asylum Office was operating under a system called FIFO (first in, first out), meaning that cases were processed in the order received. However, in January 2018, the Asylum Office changed to LIFO (last in, first out), meaning that newer cases are interviewed before older cases. People like RJ, who filed for asylum prior to January 2018, were left behind, with no prospect for a quick interview. RJ's case has now been pending for over 4½ years, with no end in sight.

These lengthy delays take a toll. Many asylum seekers suffer anxiety and depression. Some commit suicide. Others lose family members to violence back home, or to illness. In RJ's case, his wife is currently hospitalized with coronavirus.

Under American law, there is no duty to rescue a person in danger. However, once you undertake a rescue, you are required to act competently. Similarly, we as a nation are not required to offer protection to asylum seekers. We voluntarily entered into international agreements and passed domestic laws to offer such protection. Having taken on this responsibility, we have a duty to act competently. Forcing asylum seekers to wait for years without seeing their loved ones is a dereliction of that duty.

We are rightly concerned about migrants separated from their families during the Trump Administration. But we should not forget the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who have come to our country for protection, and whose cases are stuck in a never-ending limbo. They deserve timely decisions, so they can reunite with family members and start the process of healing.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com