Dear Senator [Senator’s name],
I would like to call your attention to an urgent and important issue: the backlog in the U.S. asylum system.
Every asylum seeker, who enters the U.S. on a valid visa, has to file their application with the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), who will then review the case and interview the applicant to determine if they can remain in the United States. The interviews are conducted by Asylum Officers working for the agency and are integral in order for the asylum claim to be processed. According to U.S. law, every applicant is to be interviewed within X, to guarantee due process and give asylees the chance to settle in and build a new life in a sustainable time frame, while also allowing those, whose claim is denied, to be deported quickly.
However, due to a growing number of asylum claims, but only a small and slowly increasing number of asylum officers to process these, asylees have to wait longer and longer periods until their claim is processed. Until 2012, asylum applicants only had to wait a few months for their interview. But now they must wait up to two or even three years. Additionally, the number of new asylum claims is not decreasing, contributing to a ever-growing backlog of unprocessed claims. In 2013, for example, there were 33,000 asylum applications waiting to be processed; by March 2016, this number had more than quadrupled to 144,000.
This means that someone who enters the U.S. with a valid visa right now and immediately completes all necessary steps to file their asylum claim with the asylum office in Arlington, will most likely not have their asylum interview before July 2018 at the absolute earliest. They will spend at least 24 months waiting, living in insecurity and unable to fully settle into their new life. 24 months struggling to find an employer, who is willing to hire someone without guaranteed permanent residence. 24 months unable to reunite with their family. These are people who may have experienced severe persecution, torture and trauma in their home country, people who now have to worry about the safety and life of the loved ones they had to leave behind - because without asylum, they have no way to get their families to follow them.
I am affiliated with the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC) International, a non-profit in Washington DC which provides psychological counseling, medical care, housing, legal aid, employment counseling and other services to survivors of torture; and also advocates for them and trains them to influence human rights and asylum policy themselves. Many of the individuals TASSC currently services are still waiting or waited a long time for their asylum claim to be processed. The survivors come from all walks of life—they are doctors, nurses, lawyers, pharmacists, journalists, university professors, taxi drivers, teachers and accountants. They were tortured for exposing government corruption and election fraud, for “daring” to join peaceful opposition political parties, or for just being the son or daughter of an activist. Mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, even children of activists are harassed and physically attacked. Now the survivors are caught in a limbo waiting for their asylum claim to be processed, unknowing of what is next and unable to fully focus on their healing.
The primary cause for the backlog is the high influx of Central American migrants, who have crossed into the United States from Mexico without proper documentation, including many unaccompanied children. Asylum Officers, who normally conduct regular asylum interviews, were sent to the Southern border to process these cases and, thus, were unable to continue with their regular responsibilities. Additionally, USCIS is “lending” some asylum officers to its Refugee Corps, who are sent to the Middle East and other parts of the world to interview migrants applying for refugee status. Thus, the already low number of Asylum Officers is further decreased and by the end of 2016, there will only be 533 asylum officers funded by USCIS. That is not enough to reduce the large backlog. For this reason we believe USCIS needs 800 Asylum Officers on staff, because this would make a dramatic difference in the length of time people have to wait for their interview.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this letter and considering my request.