President Joe Biden sent the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 to Congress on January 20, his first day in office. This bill provides a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented individuals, prioritizes family reunification, addresses the root causes of migration from Central America, modernizes border security, and aims to reduce the Immigration Court backlog.

But even if the U.S. Citizenship Act becomes law (which seems increasingly unlikely), it does not address the backlog of over 373,000 affirmative asylum cases--these are mostly individuals who entered the United States legally with visas, and who then applied for asylum. They include democracy and human rights advocates, journalists, religious minorities, and members of the LGBT community, among others. Many in the backlog are torture survivors and others who have suffered severe persecution. Since one case sometimes contains several family members, the total number of people waiting in the affirmative asylum backlog is something like 600,000 individuals. Many of those in the backlog have already been waiting four, five or even six years for an interview. These individuals represent a “Hidden Asylum Crisis” because their suffering is invisible to the general public and has thus far been ignored by lawmakers.

The years-long delays have forced torture survivors and other asylum applicants to live in uncertainty (since they have no idea when their cases will be resolved) and fear (since they could be deported to a country where they face harm or death).

In response to this problem, advocates are organizing a nationwide campaign to convince USCIS to make several administrative changes that would reduce the affirmative asylum backlog and make the system more efficient. Thus far, these efforts have focused on several members of Congress.

For example, the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles ("PTVLA") reached out to their local Congresswoman, Judy Chu, to arrange a Zoom meeting. Carol Gomez, Clinical Director of PTVLA, and several staff members met with Congresswoman Chu’s immigration aide. Over 40 torture survivors--from Uganda, Nigeria, Russia, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico--participated in this effort by signing a letter that Carol and PTVLA sent to Representative Chu’s office.

Congresswoman Chu was one of seven House Democrats who led the effort to introduce the U.S. Citizenship Act in the House of Representatives. The others were California Congresswomen Linda Sanchez, Karen Bass, Zoe Lofgren, and Lucille Roybal-Allard, as well as Nydia Velasquez and Yvette Clarke from New York.

PTVLA is asking Congresswoman Chu and other Representatives to send a letter to Alejandro Mayorkas, the Secretary of Homeland Security, who oversees USCIS and the affirmative asylum office. PTVLA and its allies want Secretary Mayorkas to recognize the plight of affirmative asylum applicants by making several administrative changes to how USCIS schedules interviews. These changes include--
  • Assigning a specific number of Asylum Officers to interview exclusively affirmative asylum applicants (currently many Asylum Officers are deployed to the Mexican border, which has thus far received priority over affirmative asylum cases). Hiring more officers would also help reduce the backlog more quickly.
  • Returning to FIFO (First-In, First-Out), so that asylum cases are interviewed in the order received. FIFO is a fairer and more humane system than the current LIFO (Last-In, First-Out) system, where USCIS tries (and usually fails) to interview new cases first, and those in the backlog have no idea about when their applications might be heard.
  • Reinstituting the Affirmative Asylum Scheduling Bulletin, which gives asylum seekers an idea about when they might expect an interview.

If Congress can be convinced to reach out to Secretary Mayorkas, it would bring needed attention to the issue of the backlog and could result in a change in policy. You can see a draft version of the letter PTVLA and other advocates are asking Congress to send to Secretary Mayorkas here.

Your Chance to be an Advocate for Affirmative Asylum Seekers

If you are an asylum seeker or a survivor of torture and want to get involved in the advocacy campaign to reduce the backlog, here are some steps you can take--

Identify your two Senators and your Representative and call them: You can find your Senators here and your Representative here. You can find phone numbers for their Washington, DC office on their website. You can also send a message through their website. Staff members do listen to voice mail and read messages sent through the website.

Your message: Explain that you are a torture survivor or an affirmative asylum seeker (or an attorney or advocate who works with this population). Tell them about your experience in the U.S. asylum system. How long did you wait? How has that affected you and your family? Make sure to leave your name and address, so they know you are a constituent. You do not have to be a citizen or have a Green Card to contact your elected representatives. They want to hear from you. You can also ask friends, relatives, co-workers, and members of your church or mosque to contact their elected representatives as well. The more people who call or write, the more likely the representatives are to respond.

Here is an example of an email or voice message--

Hello, my name is Kizza. I am a torture survivor from Uganda and I live in Los Angeles, California. I support the new US Citizenship Act and its humane approach to welcoming non-citizens to the United States. But the bill does not address people like me, affirmative asylum seekers who entered the United States with a visa and sought protection in this country. I have been waiting five years for my asylum interview. I am suffering so much because of this long wait, and I fear I could be killed if I am deported back to my country. Please ask Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to make the changes necessary in USCIS so that asylum seekers who have waited years for their interviews will be interviewed soon.

Once you have contacted your representative, please email Gary Sampliner at gsampliner@hotmail.com. Let him know your name and where you live. That way, we will know how many people from each state are contacting Congress (Gary is a volunteer who has offered to keep track of asylum seekers and their advocates who are reaching out to Congress; he is not an immigration attorney - Thank you Gary!). By working together, we can influence our lawmakers and improve the asylum system for everyone.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com