The number of people seeking asylum in the United States is rising and overwhelming officers at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, representatives of the agency’s ombudsman said Thursday.
Ombudsman Julie Kirchner, whose office is independent of the agency, highlighted her office’s annual report to Congress. Among the most alarming aspects of the 90-page report is the asylum backlog. The report indicates that by the end of fiscal year 2016, there were 223,433 pending asylum requests. That number has only grown since, said Peggy Gleason, a family adviser with the ombudsman’s office.
“That backlog has grown and continues to grow, by their reporting,” she said. “Even though the asylum office has taken various efforts to address it — and we talk about it in the annual report — but of course the effect of a backlog like that is that applicants are waiting two to five years to obtain an interview for their asylum case, which is not working well.”
Recommendations included increasing the number of employees processing claims. The current number stands at 515, but Gleason said many of them perform other duties.
The fiscal year 2016 backlog of 223,433 cases represents a 35 percent increase in new cases over the previous calendar year and a 181 percent increase in new applications since 2012, according to the annual report. The number of pending cases jumped by 1,078 percent during that time period.
The report also states that the waiting times far exceed the 180 days mandated by the statute and raise concerns of fraud. One in five 2016 asylum applications came from people who indicated in their paperwork that they had been in the United States 10 years or longer. The report attributes part of the cause to people attempting to stop deportation.
The surge in children and families who traveled from Central America to the U.S.-Mexican border starting in summer 2014 also has exacerbated the problem, according to the report.
Critics contend most of the claims for asylum that the surge produced are baseless.
“This was sort of put on by the policies of the Obama administration,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “Word got out that if you got here, you’d be allowed in.”
[lz_table title=”Asylum Backlog Grows” source=”DHS annual report”]Year,Pending cases
Kyle Shideler, director of threat assessment at the Center for Security Policy, noted that international law requires people fleeing persecution to ask for asylum in the first available country.
“Very often, they don’t want to stay in the first available country,” he said. “They want to come to the United States.”
Increased backlogs also put pressure on U.S. officials to prioritize approvals over vigilant screening, Shideler said.
“Part of it is a policy change,” he said. “And part of it probably is also a culture change in the office.”
Mehlman agreed and suggested that applications delayed beyond a certain point should be dismissed.
“It’s kind of a stalling tactic to buy some time here … Our view is there should be some sort of cutoff between the time you come here and the time you apply for asylum,” he said. “Those [applications from people who have been in American for a decade or longer] should be immediately dismissed. There’s no reason they should tie up the system.”
Asylum is one factor straining the USCIS. Gleason noted Thursday that the 2016 election and an announced increase in fees set off a rush to begin citizenship proceedings. Naturalization applications surged to 972,000, more than 200,000 more than projected.
Demand also has greatly outstripped the supply of U visas, given to crime victims and their relatives in cases in which they are needed to assist prosecutions. The visas are capped at 10,000 a year. Gleason said a backlog means that people seeking the visas have to wait an average of three years just to get on a waiting list, which allows them to work legally.
“Basically, the problems now revolve around the number of cases that are pending and how long they have to be pending,” she said. “There’s some 150,000 new visas [applications] that were pending as of September 2016.”
Gleason said the agency attempted to deal the backlog by transferring 26,000 cases from the Vermont office — the only one where U visas were processed — to an office in Nebraska. But she said she does not expect it to make a big dent.
“You have to wait for years before your application is even reviewed,” she said.
(photo credit, article image: Rudychaimg, Wikimedia)