Dear Asylum Office -

Did you ever have an annoying friend who keeps wanting to tell you what's what? Who couldn't accept that you're not interested in his advice about how to improve your life? Who blathers on about this-and-that without noticing that you've nodded off? I get it. But here I am anyway. The fact is, my dear Asylum Office, you're a mess and something needs to be done.

Please don't misunderstand when I say that you're a mess. I am speaking as a friend. Or maybe a frenemy. According to your own data, there are now (as of December 2021) more than 438,500 cases pending at our nation's Asylum Offices. Many applicants have been waiting for years without an interview and with no real hope of receiving a decision any time soon. The good news is that you've hired 80 brand-spankin' new officers to interview older (pre-2016) cases. But the concern is that these officers will not be used efficiently or fairly. Luckily, I am here to offer some unsolicited advice about maximizing efficiency and protecting due process of law.

I should begin by noting that this is my second article offering unsolicited advice to the Asylum Office. In my first article, I suggested that workloads should be distributed more evenly across the different offices, people separated from immediate family members should receive priority for interviews, the expedite process should be standardized, and the validity period of EADs should be increased from one year to two. As observers of the asylum system already know, the only piece of advice that the Asylum Office implemented was the two-year EAD. So I guess I can claim credit for something. I still hope that these other ideas will be implemented, as they would benefit many applicants.

Today, though, I want to offer advice about how to utilize the 80 new Asylum Officers and how to more efficiently deal with Afghan asylum seekers. So my dear Asylum Office, here are a few more great ideas for your consideration:

Contact applicants before scheduling interviews: According to 2021 data from the Asylum Division, 39% of all asylum interviews were either "no shows" or were rescheduled. Presumably, most of these were newly filed cases (per LIFO, the last-in, first-out policy where new cases have priority for interviews). If 39% of newer cases do not go forward as scheduled, it stands to reason that for 6+ year-old cases, we will see many more reschedule requests and no shows.

I recently saw a couple examples of this in my own practice when the Asylum Office sent interview notices for two of my 2016 cases (how these cases were chosen for interviews, I have no idea). It turns out that both applicants had left the country. It took time for me to verify this, and by the time I informed the Asylum Office, it was likely too late for them to schedule someone else for those time slots. I expect that many pre-2016 applicants will have similarly left the U.S. or will have obtained status here some other way, or will simply have forgotten to update their addresses, and so they will not appear for their interviews and those time slots will be wasted.

Now perhaps the situation is not as bad as it appears, since the Asylum Offices overbook interviews in anticipation that some applicants will not appear. But this seems problematic. First, it is difficult to know how many "old" applicants will appear, and so it is unlikely that the Asylum Offices can estimate how many interviews to overbook, at least until they start to get a sense of how many older applicants show up. Second, to the extent that Asylum Officers prepare in advance, "no shows" are a waste of time. Third, reschedule requests use Asylum Office resources. If applicants need to reschedule (for example, because they are not ready for an interview that gets scheduled out of the blue), this wastes everyone's time.

Thankfully, there is an easy solution: Call or email the applicant (or attorney) before scheduling an interview. This seems simple enough and my local Asylum Office (Virginia) actually does this once in a while. Contacting the applicant before scheduling the interview would reduce the number of "no shows" and reschedule requests. It would also enhance due process by allowing asylum seekers enough time to update their cases, submit additional evidence, and prepare for their interview. Advance notice would also allow busy lawyers to prepare for the case and avoid conflicts with other cases (or--Heaven forbid--vacations or family time). Touching base with applicants ahead of time would also help Asylum Officers, who could prepare in advance, confident that the applicant will appear for her interview.

Give enough notice for interviews: On a related note, the Asylum Offices are often scheduling old cases for interviews with only two or three weeks notice. This is not nearly enough time. In some cases, we lawyers have not been in contact with our clients for years. It takes time to re-connect. Cases and affidavits need to be updated, since the applicant's circumstances and country conditions may have changed significantly since the I-589 was submitted. Pro se applicants may want time to consult with a lawyer.

Most Immigration Court cases are scheduled a year or more in advance. Why can't asylum cases be scheduled this way as well? I understand that the Asylum Office has different priorities, such as interviews at the border, which make it difficult to predict officer availability. But this should not be the case for the 80 new officers who are (supposedly) devoted exclusively to pre-2016 cases. There seems no reason why cases for these officers cannot be scheduled with much more advance notice.

Shorter interviews for Afghans: The Asylum Offices have been prioritizing interviews for evacuees from Afghanistan, and so many Afghans are receiving interviews these days. Since Afghanistan has been taken over by Taliban terrorists, and since any Afghan currently in the U.S. would be in grave danger if he returns to his country, you would think that interviews for Afghans would not take long ("You are a human being from Afghanistan and you are not a terrorist?" "Approved!"). However, interviews for Afghans routinely take 3, 4, 5 hours or longer. We get lots of questions about problems the applicant faced before the Taliban takeover, and about whether the pre-Taliban police could protect the applicant. Given current country conditions, such questions are utterly irrelevant. Unless there is some concern about a legal bar to asylum, Afghan interviews should be completed much more quickly.

Finally, one bonus suggestion--Stop losing applicants' files: When we have a client scheduled for an interview, we submit additional evidence for the case. Most Asylum Offices want that evidence submitted at least one week prior to the interview. Once the interview is scheduled, we gather and submit the evidence, with a copy of the interview notice, so hopefully our submission will reach the interviewing officer. We submit one copy by certified mail and a scanned copy by email. In almost every case, the officer does not receive either the mailed or the scanned copy. For this reason, we bring a third copy of the evidence to the interview and hand it directly to the Asylum Officer. This should not be necessary. The Asylum Offices need some way of receiving documents and matching them with applicants' files. This seems like a no brainer, but it has been an on-going problem for years.

As the 80 new Asylum Officers come "on line," I hope the Asylum Offices will consider better, fairer, and more efficient ways to schedule interviews, including some of these humble suggestions.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: