This post is by Larry Gollub, who writes: I first encountered a proposal to create a professional corps of asylum adjudicators while in law school in 1985 and immediately knew that was what I wanted to do. I had to wait till 1991 for the government to create the asylum corps, but was hired with the second wave of new officers in 1992, serving with the asylum corps in one capacity or another until my retirement in 2015. I was asked to return to the training program on a part time basis in 2017 and stayed there through 2019. After returning to retirement, I worked with a group from the Asylum Officers union to draft Amicus Briefs to be filed in numerous court cases challenging Trump Administration policy changes. My main contribution was my detailed knowledge of the history of the asylum program.

About a dozen years ago, while researching just what the public thought an Asylum Officer did, I came across this post, by a person calling herself Lucette, in an online discussion thread conveniently titled, "Asylum Officer Qualifications":

I am an immigration attorney with 3 years experience in Immigration Law and an interest in asylum law. I have successfully represented asylum applicants before CIS and in Immigration Court over the past three years. I am interested in a position as an asylum officer and I am wondering whether anyone would be so kind as to tell me whether my qualifications are such that I would be a viable candidate?

Lucette was constantly being passed over in her applications for employment as an Asylum Officer ("AO") and wanted to know why. At the time, I was working as an instructor in the asylum office training division and knew the qualifications of all the new AOs who were being hired, and so I was mystified by the post. According to what I knew, Lucette was highly qualified and should have had no problem getting hired.

I reached out, and after some back and forth, determined that Lucette was applying for the AO position in the way she was taught to apply for attorney positions while in law school. Basically, a short and to-the-point resume to catch the attention of an overworked attorney charged with hiring new associates, get an interview, and then expand on the bare bones of the resume, hoping to make a good enough impression to be invited back for a second interview. The federal government does not hire that way--it makes too much sense.

In federal hiring, the initial application/resume has to be reviewed by a human resource specialist who generally doesn’t have a clue as to what the actual job really involves, to determine initial eligibility. Applicants must prove that they have the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities ("KSAs") that the job opening notice calls for, but the person who does the initial review does not really know what those requirements are beyond the language in the job opening notice.

The human resource specialist merely matches the language in the resume with the language from the job opening notice. If there is a match, the applicant will be found eligible and may be referred to a hiring official. The hiring official will usually be an Asylum Office director who not only knows what an AO actually does, but knows what they want AOs working for them to do. Depending on the quality of the experience, the applicant may be invited for an interview, which would be more akin to a second interview in normal hiring for an attorney. The application is really more akin to the first interview phase of normal attorney hiring.

The application must contain enough information to convince the person with final hiring authority to interview the applicant. But it also has to be presented in a manner that an uninformed low-level bureaucrat will determine that it meets the criteria of the KSAs in the job opening notice, whether those requirements are rational or not.

I recommended that Lucette go to a bookstore and buy a book about getting a federal job. She did that, then expanded her resume from one page to five pages, making sure to include all the language from the job opening notice in her descriptions of her previous jobs. After she had been deemed unqualified in three or four previous applications, suddenly she was not only found highly qualified, she was immediately referred to a hiring official, offered an AO position, and went on to a very successful career with the asylum program.

Why are these arcane details of seeking federal employment important in the asylum context?

The asylum program is in the middle of a major hiring initiative that will double the size of the asylum corps. The language in the job opening notices will be the determining factor in the quality of the pool of potential new hires that get referred to hiring officials.

With that in mind, I was horrified when I read the most recent public job opening notice that was posted just a few weeks ago. The most recent job opening notice, posted almost two years into the Biden administration, called for applicants with the following type of experience:
  • Examining documents for authenticity to assist in the detection of fraud;
  • Interviewing applicants and witnesses to elicit information and assess credibility;
  • Reviewing information from databases and/or other records to identify individuals who may pose a threat to national security or public safety; OR
  • Analyzing information gathered through interview and research to summarize facts and provide formal written determinations.

With that language, an applicant with Lucette’s background would never make a list of qualified applicants, she would never be referred to a hiring official, and would never get hired as an asylum officer. There is no way to turn an immigration attorney into a fraud-fighting, national-security protecting bad ***.

When I used to teach new asylum officers, I would tell them that they walked a fine line between being a law enforcement officer and a protection officer, and as important as their law enforcement duties were, they needed to keep in mind that they were protection officers first. The experience requirement in the new job opening notice turns that notion on its head, and is geared to hiring law enforcement officers without regard to protection issues.

For comparison, the job opening notice that Lucette got hired under, more than a dozen years ago, required the following specific experience:
  • Assisting individuals applying for immigration benefits by examining supporting documentation for authenticity and relevance, as well as researching and analyzing appropriate information for eligibility; and,
  • Interpreting and applying immigration laws, policies and procedures as they relate to an individual's eligibility for immigration benefits.

Where did the change in the experience requirements come from? Not hard to guess.

Officials from the Trump administration were searching for ways to destroy the asylum program, which they hated. They knew, through academic studies, that Immigration Judges with law enforcement/prosecutorial experience had a much higher denial rate than judges that were recruited from the advocacy community. So what better way to destroy the asylum program than to fix the hiring system so only those with strong law enforcement/prosecutorial experience would be hired? If every applicant gets denied, the asylum program ceases to exist. Job accomplished.

Giving the benefit of the doubt to the people who are in charge now, many of whom I know and count as friends, I am assuming that when the most recent job opening notice was posted, there was a huge mistake. Someone evidently just grabbed an old job opening notice and sent it to human resources to be used as a template for the latest notice, without reading it first. But that mistake has the potential for a major disaster if it isn’t corrected, and quickly.

In the early days of the asylum program recruits were mainly drawn from two sources: Current INS officers and refugee case workers from Joint Voluntary Agencies operating in Southeast Asia, helping refugees to apply for resettlement in the U.S. There was always tension between the two groups. The INS people wanted to stop fraud at all costs, even if it meant sending deserving asylum seekers back into harms way. The overseas refugee people wanted to help refugees, even if it meant letting a bit of the fraud succeed, in order to avoid sending deserving asylum seekers back home. Over the years, the Asylum Officers who wanted to help succeeded, but the Trump administration attempted to turn the clock back 30 years and give control to old line INS employees who want to fight fraud above all else. It appeared that they ran out of time before they could accomplish their mission. The relatively minor change in the hiring requirements was the most insidious and, potentially, the most effective change they made. While some changes have proven difficult for the Biden administration to put right, the Asylum Officer hiring announcement can be easily corrected and would help ensure a fairer, more balanced Asylum Officer corp.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: