It's the rare occasion when I can report some good news, but it seems that USCIS is taking action to help people in the affirmative asylum backlog. According to the most recent data (from December 2021), there are about 438,500 cases pending at the Asylum Office. The large majority of these applicants have not yet received interviews. Now, USCIS has hired an additional 80 Asylum Officers who will be dedicated to interviewing applicants who filed for asylum on or before January 1, 2016, meaning that they will be interviewing asylum seekers who have been waiting the longest.

Here, we'll discuss what this means for those applicants, and also for people who filed after January 1, 2016. I'll also make some suggestions about how to schedule these interviews in a way that is fair to applicants and to their lawyers (i.e., I will beg USCIS to have mercy on us).

Let's start with a basic question: How do I know about this new development? For the last couple years, I have been involved in an effort to lobby Congress on behalf of affirmative asylum seekers. We've been asking for several things, including dedicating a certain number of Asylum Officers (AOs) to the oldest cases, prioritizing cases that are more than five years old, and ending the last-in, first-out (LIFO) scheduling system, which prioritizes new cases over old cases. We had some success in our efforts, including convincing 40 Members of Congress to send a letter to USCIS about the affirmative asylum backlog. During the course of our campaign, we have been in contact with different Congresspeople's offices, and one of our contacts recently informed us about the 80 new AOs. This contact had been in touch with USCIS, and supposedly the agency confirmed the news. Whether our efforts led to the hiring of these new officers, I do not know, but certainly I am willing to take credit for it - You're welcome.

While this is good news, there is still much we do not know. First, we do not know when these AOs will start adjudicating cases. They are currently hired and in training (a months-long process, apparently made slower by pandemic restrictions). Given that their training has started, I would expect them to be coming on-line in the next few months.

We also do not know where the new AOs will be assigned. USCIS has indicated that they would be dispersed across the Asylum Offices, but we do not have specifics. Will they be distributed evenly across all offices? Will more AOs be assigned to offices with larger backlogs?

Also, how will they interview old cases? Will they start with the oldest and work forward? Will they prioritize certain cases, such as people from Afghanistan, who are currently receiving priority over other newly-filed cases? Or maybe they will prioritize one-year bar cases, which had been the practice at certain Asylum Offices (presumably in order to quickly deny cases that were not eligible for a grant).

In addition, I wonder how firmly USCIS is committed to using these officers for the oldest cases. What if other priorities arise--for example, if many people are arriving at the border and there are not enough "regular" AOs to interview everyone--will the new AOs be transferred to places where USCIS believes they are needed more? Or will these officers be committed to interviewing old cases no matter what?

Perhaps I am too cynical. If these 80 officers are truly devoted to older cases, they can make a real difference. Assuming each AO can interview eight applicants per week (this may be a bit of a stretch, but it is not unrealistic), that would be about 400 interviews per year, times 80 officers = 32,000 interviews per year! And USCIS has indicated that if other officers have extra capacity, they may also be detailed to older cases, which could allow even more interviews.

We do not know how many cases are still pending from before January 1, 2016, but in March 2016, there were 144,500 cases in the backlog. Many of those cases have likely already been interviewed, meaning that 80 officers devoted full time to pre-2016 cases could probably interview all those cases in a year or two.

This is good news for the longest suffering applicants, who may finally receive their interviews. For this reason, it is important for people whose cases have been pending since before January 1, 2016 to make sure that they have gathered all required evidence and are ready to proceed if an interview is scheduled (though I do not recommend actually filing the evidence until the interview is scheduled).

This new development may benefit other asylum seekers as well. Once the oldest cases are resolved, presumably, the new AOs would start work on 2016 and 2017 cases. They may also free up "regular" officers to work on newer cases or expedite requests (though the Asylum Offices still need a more regular process for expediting cases).

And now for my humble request. While it is good news that the oldest cases will receive interviews, it is imperative that applicants have sufficient time to prepare for their interviews. In the case of represented applicants, they may not have been in contact with their lawyers for years. It takes time to re-establish contact, determine the status of the case, and complete the work. For unrepresented applicants, they may need time to find a lawyer or update their case.

These days, some asylum interviews are scheduled with little notice; other times, the applicant receives the notice a month or more before the interview. USCIS will explain that it is difficult to schedule cases with much advance notice, since the agency cannot easily predict its workload or how it will need to allocate resources (given the varying conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border, for example). However, if the new AOs are devoted solely to old cases, workloads should be much more predictable, and hopefully that will allow the agency to give applicants at least a month or two of notice prior to the interview. Without such notice, applicants (and their already overworked attorneys) will not have time to properly prepare for their interviews.

Finally, while these new officers will certainly make a difference, I still believe a better solution would be to return to FIFO--the first-in, fist-out system where cases are interviewed in the order that they are filed. I have never accepted the logic behind LIFO--that it deters frivolous filings, and in my opinion, USICS should re-visit this conclusion. Also, the Asylum Office should make changes so that interviews are more efficient. There is much to be done to address the backlog, but for now, we can commend USCIS for hiring new officers to help those applicants who have been waiting the longest.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: