On October 27, 2022, a group of torture survivors held a protest outside the Arlington Asylum Office. The protesters were asylum seekers who have been waiting for five years or more for an interview. Their request was simple: Please interview me and give me a decision in my asylum case.

According to the most recent data, there are more than half a million cases pending at our nation's Asylum Offices. Many of the applicants have been waiting five, six, seven years or more for an interview, with no end in sight. Imagine living years in the U.S., uncertain whether you can stay or will have to leave, and without knowing when--if ever--you will see your loved ones again.

In response to this situation, the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition ("TASSC"), other torture survivor groups, and the torture survivors themselves have been lobbying Congress and USCIS for help. As a result of this advocacy, last summer, the Asylum Division committed to adding 80 additional Asylum Officers ("AOs") to work exclusively on old cases. TASSC was informed that these AOs would be "dispersed across the asylum offices to focus on backlogged affirmative asylum cases, specifically targeting cases with a filing date of January 1, 2016, or earlier." TASSC spread the word about these new AOs, and many asylum seekers finally started to feel some hope after such a long wait.

Then, last month, we learned that none of the new AOs had been assigned to the Arlington Office. Torture survivors in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC were the ones who launched the campaign, and now they would not receive any relief. After hearing this bad news, DC-area asylum seekers rallied in protest. Led by Andrea Barron, TASSC's Advocacy & Outreach Program Manager, and some of the torture survivors themselves, they demonstrated in front of the asylum office. According to Ms. Barron, who also led the lobbying effort, the protesters were asking USCIS to assign 10 new AOs to the Arlington Asylum Office to interview those who have been waiting the longest.

Below are a few of the protesters' stories. In some cases, the names have been changed to protect the person's privacy.

Autelien Nana: I attended the demonstration because I have been waiting seven years for an asylum interview.

I come from Cameroon, where police tortured me because I led an organization that supports human rights and equality for all Cameroonians. Then in 2014, unknown men attacked me with machetes. I lost consciousness and ended up in a hospital. A few months later, I was arrested and tortured for eight hours after attending the funeral of someone in my organization. Finally, I fled Cameroon to save my life. I had to leave behind my wife and six children.

I reached the United States and applied for asylum in 2015. I don’t know why USCIS will not interview people who were persecuted because of our political opinion. USCIS says it does not have enough asylum officers. But it has enough officers to interview people who applied in 2021 or 2022 under LIFO, the last-in, first-out policy. This is very unfair.

I have suffered so much stress and pain during this long wait. In 2020, police in Cameroon attacked my wife and beat my two young daughters. I often have severe pain in my chest, left arm, neck, and back. I was hospitalized multiple times because of pain and stress, and I even blacked out a few times.

USCIS said it hired 80 new officers to interview asylum seekers like me, who applied before January 1, 2016. But this plan has not been implemented. No new officers have been sent to the Arlington office. Our only choice is to demonstrate so USCIS will see that “Torture Survivors Matter Too.”

Desire: As a survivor, running from persecution in your home country, once you make it to the USA, you feel relief, because you hope and believe that your torture is over. But in fact, you are moving from one form of torture to another. Waiting for asylum for five to 10 years is itself a form of torture.

I am not sure whether the U.S. government and the Asylum Officers understand the strain that torture survivors go through on a daily basis. I came to the demonstrate on October 27 to let USCIS know how terrible it is for us. Being an asylum seeker keeps you in limbo. You have to wait for a decision before you can move forward with anything in your life. It's like being in a tunnel with no light at the end. Your whole life is on hold. Having memories of torture is already a great burden, and added to that are many additional challenges for asylum seekers: Obtaining a driver’s license, getting an education, renewing a work permit. The worst part is my surprise and disappointment with the asylum system. I was so hopeful when I heard 80 new Asylum Officers would be assigned to interview people like me, who have been waiting seven years. But this turns out not to be true. Why did USCIS give us reason to hope and then go backwards?

Patrick: I was studying physical geography at a university in Cameroon and was president of the student rights association. We exposed government corruption. As a result, government agents jailed, tortured, and almost killed me. I left Cameroon out of fear for my life, and I came to the United States in October 2014.

I applied for asylum in May 2015. Now I have been waiting more than seven years for an interview. I have suffered so much, with so much stress because of this long wait. I don’t know what is going to happen to me and I sometimes lose sleep because I don’t understand why the Asylum Office will not interview me.

I came to the demonstrate on October 27 because I believe that USCIS should interview people waiting for seven years or longer. They promised us that we would be interviewed by new Asylum Officers. But I recently learned that no new officers will be sent to Arlington. We don’t know why. All this waiting and not knowing is so difficult for me.

Sisay: I was teaching computer courses in a high school when I was tortured by the Ethiopian government due to my Tigray ethnicity and my political affiliation. I meet the criteria for asylum under U.S. law, but I have waited for over five years and cannot even get an interview. I followed all the rules and spent so much money on a lawyer, but the lawyer cannot get the Arlington office to schedule me for an interview.

While I greatly appreciate that the United States has given me a chance to come here and apply for asylum, I have had so many setbacks because of the long delay. I have suffered emotional and psychological issues, and I am in a state of constant anxiety where the smallest misunderstanding causes me to re-live the injustices I ran away from in Ethiopia.

Every time I go to the Arlington office to ask about my status, I am told that my case is pending and that they do not have enough officers to interview me. But then why do I keep hearing about people who applied for asylum after me who already received their Green Card? Why are there Asylum Officers to interview them but not me? This is what brought me to the October 27 demonstration.
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Unfortunately, these stories are all too common. Hopefully, the Asylum Division will listen to these asylum seekers and fulfill its commitment to interview applicants who filed for asylum prior to January 1, 2016.

If you are an affirmative asylum seeker who has been waiting for more than five years, and you would like more information about TASSC's effort to assist people with long-delayed cases, please contact Andrea Barron after November 30, 2022 at andrea@tassc.org

Originally posted on the Asylumist at www.Asylumist.com