This article is by Allen Schwartz, a former Asylum Officer who now offers consulting services to asylum seekers and attorneys. He may be reached at allen.schwartz@visaconsults.com or (305) 528-6474. Learn more about him at his website, www.visaconsults.com.

After a 23-year career as an Asylum Officer with INS/USCIS, I decided to retire from in late 2019 and pursue my lifelong passions, such as travel and exploring this incredible world with its wide variety of people, cultures, and languages. I also planned on utilizing my extensive background in immigration, particularly asylum and refugee work, as a consultant. Little did I know or could have predicted that a few months after my retirement, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world in unimaginable ways and turned “normal life” upside down. As a result of the pandemic, international borders were closed, embassies and consulates were shut down, travel was severely restricted, and immigration to the United States came to an almost virtual standstill.

COVID-19 has also dramatically reduced the number of affirmative asylum cases being scheduled and interviewed at our Asylum Offices here in the United States and the affirmative asylum backlog has continued to grow exponentially. Only recently have we seen that in-person asylum interviews are being scheduled again, albeit at a significantly reduced number.

Before COVID-19, each Asylum Officer was required to interview eight cases per week, a very daunting task. Currently, the number of interviews have been cut at least in half in most offices, since the Asylum Officer, the attorney/representative, and the applicant must be in separate rooms. A recent policy change requires that interpretation must be provided by a telephonic government-contracted translator during the interview. Prior to COVID-19, applicants were required to bring their own interpreter for the interview. The future for an accelerated and expansive interview schedule for affirmative asylum cases remains to be seen. While we wait, I have prepared a six-point “best advice” list for your review--
  • BE WELL-PREPARED: As a rule, Asylum Officers (AO’s) are highly-educated, well-meaning and compassionate federal government employees who want to make the “right” decision in each case. From my extensive number of years serving as an AO and having conducted thousands of asylum interviews throughout my career, the best cases were those without any (or very few) discrepancies or inconsistencies. AO’s have in their possession many ways to access information about YOU and YOUR family, such as your previous immigration and visa interviews. Therefore, be as consistent as possible and be able to fully and completely explain any discrepancy.
  • ANSWER QUESTIONS CLEARLY AND CONCISELY: One of my biggest frustrations as an Asylum Officer was when an applicant would either fail to answer a question directly and/or pivot and try to redirect the interview to a more favorable topic (such as the alleged past harm or fear of future harm). During the asylum interview, it is very important for you to clearly answer each question posed by the AO and not be evasive or try to change the topic.
  • NEVER BE OVERCONFIDENT, SMUG OR CONFRONTATIONAL: In this regard, I have several pertinent words of advice--never appear to be overconfident or smug and definitely not confrontational during the interview. It is best to display humbleness and appreciation for being given the opportunity to present your asylum claim. Having a genuine and straightforward demeanor is an important element to display during the interview as well.
  • ALWAYS BE YOURSELF: The Asylum Officer wants and needs to interview the real YOU, not a scripted applicant who may (or may not) know what is written on the I-589 asylum application. Although it can be very difficult for the AO to discern if your claim is based on actual occurrences in your life, my absolute best cases have been those where there was no doubt about the legitimacy of YOUR identity and YOUR experiences/harm in your life.
  • ASK FOR CLARIFICATION: This is your one and only opportunity to present your asylum claim in front of an Asylum Officer. There is a tremendous amount at stake at this interview, particularly your aspirations and dreams. Therefore, if you do not understand a question posed to you by the AO or there is some confusion about the information being requested, please ask for clarification. You want to be certain that you fully understand the questions being asked so that you can respond appropriately and accurately.
  • DOCUMENTS: Every Asylum Officer is well-trained and is able to closely examine documents which are brought to and presented at the interview. While certain documents are essential to bring to the interview (such as your passport and U.S. visa if you were issued one), there are many other documents and written reports which may not be necessary to bring in at all. Asylum Officers know that virtually all documents, including photos, can easily be forged or fabricated nowadays and every Asylum Office has dedicated officers investigating all kinds of fraud, including document fraud. Furthermore, AO’s have considerable time constraints and probably won’t even be able to fully review all of your documents. Additionally, detailed country conditions information is readily available to all AO’s, so there is no need to bring in generalized political or human rights reports from your specific country. Bringing in extensive documents to the asylum interview can actually have a detrimental effect on your asylum claim. In most cases your verbal testimony, its consistency with your written application, and your body language will be the critical factors in deciding your case. My general advice would therefore be to submit only essential documents; actually the fewer the better.

In the meantime, I want to let you know that I have begun my own consultation business, a one-of-kind operation to assist asylum seekers at the most important part of the process--the INTERVIEW! I believe that the single most anxiety-filled aspect of the asylum process is the actual interview and what to expect during this once in a lifetime event. The asylum interview can be life-changing in many ways, primarily by giving the applicant an opportunity to legally remain in the United States indefinitely if granted or being placed into removal proceedings (and potentially being removed to one’s country of citizenship) if referred. As such, currently I am offering my services to prepare pending asylum applicants for their interview by conducting full mock interviews. If you are an affirmative asylum applicant represented by an attorney or accredited representative and would like a mock interview just prior to the actual interview at your local Asylum Office, please contact me. If you are an attorney or accredited representative who would like an enhanced level of service for your asylum seeking clients, I would be pleased to assist them by providing a complete and confidential mock interview. You may reach me at allen.schwartz@visaconsults.com or (305) 528-6474.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com