In a recent letter to USCIS, 61 members of Congress have expressed their "concern" about delays at our nation's Asylum Offices. The letter calls on USCIS to prioritize the oldest cases for interviews and asks a number of pointed questions about the reasons behind the agency's interminable delays.

Anyone familiar with the asylum system knows why this letter was necessary--approximately 800,000 cases (representing well over 1 million people) are stuck in the affirmative asylum backlog. More than 180,000 of these cases have been pending for five years or more, and some applicants have been waiting for their interview since 2015 with no real prospect of being interviewed any time soon.

This is not the first time Congress has inquired about the backlog. In September 2021, forty Representatives wrote to USCIS about the same problem. Unfortunately, USCIS did nothing and since then, the number of cases in the backlog has almost doubled. So now Congress has sent a follow-up letter.

The letter first makes two suggestions that each of the nation's Asylum Offices should implement by August 18, 2023: (1) "Commit to designating asylum officers to work 'back to front' to address the backlog, giving those asylum seekers moved to the back of the line by the 2018 change to LIFO [last-in, first-out] the opportunity to receive more timely decisions in their cases," and (2) "Commit to a five-year 'cutoff period,' after which time a pending application is moved to the front of the line, ensuring that applicants will not wait decades for an interview." If implemented, these changes would provide relief to the longest-waiting asylum seekers. Unfortunately, however, these ideas are "suggestions" for the Asylum Office and not requirements, and so I would not be surprised if USCIS ignores them (again).

The letter also asks seven questions about operations at the Asylum Offices, and these will be harder for the agency to ignore. Assuming USCIS answers, we will have a better understanding of how the agency is addressing the backlog in each Asylum Office (since policies vary from one office to the next). The questions ask about how the Asylum Offices are handling 5+ year old cases, how many officers are devoted to adjudicating these cases, and how many such cases have been decided during the prior fiscal year. USCIS may or may not have data about 5+ year old cases, but they certainly should have information about what resources are being devoted to older cases at each office, and this would be helpful to know.

More than the specific content itself, the fact that this letter was sent is important because it shows that members of Congress are interested in what happens at the Asylum Offices, and that someone is paying attention. This is significant, as the affirmative asylum backlog has long been a hidden immigration crisis, and shedding light on the situation will hopefully push USCIS to do better.

Finally, it is important to understand a bit about the process that led to this letter. Congress did not simply act on its own. A number of agencies, advocates, and--most impactfully--asylum seekers lobbied Congress to make it happen.

I attended several of the meetings where we spoke to Congressional staff about the affirmative asylum backlog. The asylum seekers in our group (all of whom are torture survivors) explained why they needed protection and how the very long delays were harming them. It is one thing to hear about this harm academically, but quite another to sit in the same room as a person who has been waiting 6, 7, 8 years or longer for an asylum interview. Some asylum seekers were barely able to speak, as the pain caused by the delay and of missing family members was too much. Their stories of surviving persecution, escaping to America, and then getting stuck in the never-ending backlog were powerful and clearly affected the Congressional staff (and all of us in the room). Their effectiveness shows the power of stories and led directly to 61 members of Congress signing on to our letter.

Also important in this effort were a number of torture survivor organizations that endorsed the letter and worked to garner support: The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC); the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs (NCTTP); RIF Asylum Support-NYC (New York City); the National Immigrant Justice Center, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns; Africa Faith and Justice Network; the DC Center for the LGBT Community; and the Common League of the Uganda Diaspora (CLOUD).

The effort of many people went into this letter, and now we will wait to see how USCIS responds. Hopefully, the agency will offer some relief to the longest-waiting applicants and give us a better idea about what is (and is not) happening at the nation's Asylum Offices.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: