We've long known that the New York Asylum Office (in Bethpage, NY) has the lowest approval rate of any Asylum Office in the United States. According to data from 2021, the asylum approval rate in NY was 7.4%. That's nearly half the approval rate of the second worst Asylum Office (Boston), and seven times worse than the best Asylum Office (New Orleans).

While the problem is not new, there has always been a question of why the NY office has such a low approval rate. A scathing new report from Safe Harbor Clinic at Brooklyn Law School sheds light on this important question.

The report is based on testimony and evidence from 11 former Asylum Officers (AOs), eight of whom worked at the NY office, one former Immigration Judge, 22 immigration attorneys, and seven asylum seekers. The interviewees are not identified in order to protect them from potential retaliation. The Safe Harbor Clinic also obtained information from publicly available sources, as well as Freedom of Information Act requests.

The first issue raised by the report relates to the location of the Asylum Office. In 2015, the office relocated from Queens to Bethpage, an area that is "virtually inaccessible" by public transportation. The remote location is bad for asylum seekers and their lawyers, since it is time-consuming and expensive to travel to Bethpage, but it is even worse for many AOs, who cannot easily get to their office. The difficult commute makes it harder to retain employees. Worse, a persistent rumor holds that the office moved to Bethpage because it was close to the home of the Asylum Office Director.

Another issue is the security guards who asylum seekers encounter upon first arriving at the office. "According to more than a dozen attorneys and asylum seekers, New York Asylum Office security guards regularly intimidate, berate, and belittle asylum seekers and attorneys." On one level, maybe the behavior of the guards is no big deal. But they are the first people an asylum seeker sees at the Asylum Office, and being mistreated upon arrival--especially for people who may already have been persecuted by security officials in the home country--could certainly set a negative tone for the interview.

A third problem involves the process at Bethpage. Asylum seekers often experience long waits before the interview, and encounter AOs who are "rushed and harried" during the interview itself. "Not every asylum officer at the New York office is rude or unkind, but it is clear that the intense time pressure on New York Asylum Officers exacerbates an already stressful and high stakes situation for everyone."

Asylum interviews are meant to be non-adversarial, since many applicants are victims of trauma. However, the report found that "aggressive, highly adversarial" interviews were common. Some attorneys reported "needlessly retraumatizing questions" or AOs who repeated the same question over and over, confusing the applicant.

The report also describes abusive behavior towards attorneys (something I strongly oppose!). Attorneys often must decide "whether to advocate for their client and risk angering the asylum officer who has ultimate control over their client’s case or remain silent and allow the officer to carry on with an abusive or even inaccurate line of questioning."

Attorneys and applicants are not the only people suffering in Bethpage. According to reports from several former AOs, the atmosphere at the New York office is "toxic." The workload is heavy and unpredictable. AOs "are not assigned their cases until they arrive for work in the morning," which leaves insufficient time to prepare. Indeed, one former AO reported that they had only about 20 minutes to review an applicant's file prior to the interview. AOs also face pressure to complete cases quickly. "Several asylum officers said they felt in constant fear of being fired because they were not getting through enough cases." Attorneys reported that this "intense time pressure" results in some AOs "applying the law unevenly and, at times, inaccurately."

In addition, several former AOs described "a bizarre office culture where employees suspected that they were being surveilled by office leadership." "Multiple former asylum officers said they believed office leadership encouraged employees to gather information about one another as a way of keeping employees in line." This environment contributes to low morale, lack of cooperation and collegiality, and high turn over (and thus loss of institutional knowledge).

Worst of all, AOs described a situation where it was easier to refer (a/k/a deny) a case than grant. Granting "takes more time because the asylum officer must demonstrate that the case meets all the elements of asylum." "Referrals, by contrast, only need to establish one element of asylum that is not met." "Multiple former officers said that the pressure to refer stemmed more from this time pressure than a mandate not to grant cases," and AOs reported that they could be punished if they advocated too strongly for a grant.

One way to quickly deny cases is to establish that the applicant is not credible (i.e., that he is not telling the truth). To do that in NY, an AO must find "three material inconsistencies in an applicant’s testimony." A misremembered date or event can easily result in an adverse credibility determination, which allows the AO to deny the case and move on to the next applicant. In examining credibility, "former New York Asylum Officers explained they were under unique pressure to root out fraud because office leadership has become preoccupied with fraudulent asylum claims." AOs sometimes refer a case to Court, as that is easier than determining whether the applicant committed fraud. And of course an adverse credibility finding at the Asylum Office--even where that finding is not particularly well supported--can be used to attack the applicant's credibility in Immigration Court, further jeopardizing that person's chances for asylum.

The report makes several recommendations, including transitioning to new leadership, creating a better work environment where AOs are retained, and treating asylum seekers with respect. To implement these changes, the report highlights the need for intervention from headquarters in Washington, DC.

In the end, the report concludes that "the New York Asylum Office is in danger of rendering itself irrelevant; a perfunctory and unnecessarily retraumatizing stop for the vast majority of asylum seekers on their way to immigration court." It's a scathing assessment and the conclusions--backed up by evidence--are difficult to ignore.

One last point: Thanks are due to Brooklyn Law School and to the authors of this report. It took a fair degree of courage to call out their local Asylum Office on its problems. Some of the authors are students, just beginning their careers. One is the clinic director, Faiza W. Said, who presumably will have to appear at the Bethpage office in the future. They all took a risk by compiling this report, and they should be commended for calling attention to the problems in NY. Let's hope that their efforts are rewarded, and that we see positive changes soon in the New York Asylum Office.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com