Asylum-seekers spend years without any advancement on their cases, which ties up not just applicants but attorneys who can’t take on new clients, further straining the system.
In Miami, a 26-year-old man who sought asylum in the United States after leaving Nicaragua five years ago, now experiences feelings of confinement despite his physical freedom. His political asylum process has remained stagnant, forcing him to continuously relive and recount his traumatic experiences, while being unable to move forward or heal from his past.
With nearly 1.6 million asylum-seekers awaiting hearings in the U.S., as per 2022 data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, the plight of individuals like him is increasingly concerning. The young asylum-seeker, speaking anonymously due to security concerns, expressed frustration over the lack of progress, describing the situation as having his hands tied.
Legal experts explain that the overwhelming number of unresolved cases has overwhelmed attorneys working in private and pro bono practices, impeding their ability to take on new clients and hindering the progress of those already in their care. They assert that the current immigration system has struggled to adapt to the influx of migrants, exacerbating the situation.
Rachel Kafele, the director of programs at Oasis Legal Services, a nonprofit organization providing free legal assistance to LGBTQ immigrants in California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, shared their struggle. Due to the backlog, Oasis currently faces a three-month waitlist for new cases, while over 800 clients remain without appointments with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Kafele cited instances where clients who applied for asylum as early as 2014 are still awaiting their interviews.
Trapped within a System Plagued by Inefficiency
Outdated U.S. Immigration System Fails to Address Current Realities, Leading to Inefficiencies
According to Raquel Aldana, a lawyer and law professor at the University of California, Davis, the United States’ immigration system has remained unchanged since its design in 1965. “We talk about the overwhelmed asylum system, but the annual grant of 20,000 to 25,000 asylum claims is insignificant,” Aldana stated. She believes that the root of the problem lies in the law itself, which fails to respond to the present reality.
Tahimí Rengifo, an immigration attorney in Miami, emphasized the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform. She expressed that the current system is tailored to the needs of a bygone era and does not align with present circumstances. Without substantial reform, the situation will only deteriorate further.
Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) data indicates that the number of pending asylum applications is at its highest recorded level. Amy Grenier, a policy and practice adviser for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, attributed the exacerbation of the situation to a combination of factors. Bureaucratic inefficiencies, past policies implemented during the Trump administration that encouraged unnecessary application denials, a personnel hiring freeze, and pandemic-related delays due to office and court closures have all contributed to the challenges.
Grenier highlighted the poor communication and coordination among immigration agencies. She cited examples of administrative tasks, like changing an address, which become unnecessarily burdensome as they must be repeated separately in each instance.
According to TRAC, the average wait time for an immigration court case is 1,572 days, equivalent to 4.3 years, from the initiation of the process until a hearing takes place. Grenier expressed the difficulties faced by immigration attorneys, who must repeatedly prepare cases due to hearing cancellations and rescheduling. This situation also places an immense burden on asylum-seekers, forcing them to live with prolonged uncertainty for years.
In conclusion, the inefficiencies within the outdated U.S. immigration system fail to address the current realities, resulting in a multitude of challenges for both attorneys and asylum-seekers alike.
Newcomers Given Priority, Leaving Others at a Disadvantage
Last In, First Out Policy Puts Newcomers at an Advantage, While Leaving Others in a State of Limbo
The Last In, First Out policy, implemented by the Trump administration and still in effect, prioritizes recently arrived individuals for asylum hearings, which has detrimental effects on both newcomers and those who have been waiting for years. This measure was introduced amidst an increase in migrants seeking asylum in the United States and enables the government to expedite the deportation of individuals deemed ineligible for asylum.
Due to the swift scheduling of hearing appointments, immigrants are left with very little time to gather evidence or secure legal representation, according to Rengifo. The timing of these appointments is beyond the control of both the immigrants and their lawyers.
Grenier explains that attorneys are declining to take cases for two primary reasons: the accelerated time frames in cases like expedited removal and the sluggish pace of proceedings in immigration courts.
Lorena Duarte, an immigration lawyer in Miami, has observed that since the establishment of her firm nearly three years ago, her cases have primarily involved recently arrived individuals, which have progressed more swiftly. On the other hand, she has encountered individuals who have been waiting for five, six, or seven years for an appointment after entering the country with a visa, and the only recourse for them is to sue the government in federal court, which many are hesitant to pursue.
While suing the government in federal court may provide a potential resolution for cases with substantial evidence, Rengifo cautions that it presents a double-edged sword. Those cases may indeed secure an interview, but they do so under the circumstances of having sued the government.
The Nicaraguan asylum-seeker, who is still awaiting the processing of his asylum request, has witnessed friends, relatives, and acquaintances who arrived after him have their cases progress while he remains trapped in a state of migratory uncertainty. He describes the situation as an injustice resulting from the flawed system.
Despite having a work permit and a Social Security number, the asylum-seeker lives with the constant uncertainty of his immigration status. He expresses feeling imprisoned in a country that doesn’t truly provide the healing and peace he sought by coming to the United States. Moreover, his status as an “asylum-seeker,” which differs from having official asylum status, limits his access to public loans for further education, among other things.
Over time, another concern arises—the possibility that conditions in the applicant’s home country may change, leading a judge to deem the past hardships irrelevant and issue a return order. This prospect raises the troubling question of what happens to the years spent trying to build a life in the United States.
Many immigrants navigate the complex immigration process without legal representation. According to TRAC, one in ten asylum-seekers were unrepresented in resolved cases in fiscal year 2022, while one in five pending asylum cases remain unrepresented.
Grenier acknowledges the need for attorneys but highlights the difficulty immigrants face in obtaining legal representation. Unlike criminal cases, where public defenders are provided by the state, no equivalent system exists for asylum cases. Nevertheless, the stakes remain incredibly high for individuals seeking asylum, especially when their lives are at risk if they are returned to their home countries, as Kafele points out.