Effective last Wednesday, January 31, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services(USCIS) has changed the way it schedules asylum interviews. It is returning to a “Last in, First out” policy, which will work well for some applicants and less so for others. Interviews will now be scheduled according to three priorities: First, interviews that were rescheduled at the applicant’s request; Second, applications pending for 21 days or less; and Third, all other pending applications, working from first to last.
The move reverts to the policy that existed from 1995 to 2014, at which point the Obama Administration changed asylum interview scheduling to “First in, First out” in an effort to clean up the backlog of asylum seekers. The Department of Homeland Security is concerned that those wishing to enter the country without authorization could take advantage of that backlog and enter the queue, confident that their interview won’t take place for a long time. According to USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna, “Lingering backlogs can be exploited and used to undermine national security and the integrity of the asylum system.”
The policy is an attempt to get a handle on the agency’s backlog. On January 31, it tweeted, “The asylum backlog has grown by more than 1750 percent over the last five years, and the rate of new asylum applications has more than tripled.”
Before the policy change, asylum applicants could expect to wait five years for an interview. Under the new policy, new applicants can expect to be interviewed within three to six weeks, while those who have already filed asylum applications and are waiting for an interview will likely have to wait longer—maybe much longer. According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association:
For clients who have already been waiting for months or years to have their asylum case scheduled, the wait is about to get much longer. Currently, each asylum office receives more asylum applications on a weekly basis than it is able to schedule for interviews. This means that unless the asylum office hires many more officers or further changes procedures, they do not seem to have any plan in place to schedule interviews for clients in the backlog.
According to Greg Chen, Director of Government Relations for AILA, “Asylum seekers already waiting in the backlog will be severely disadvantaged - and even be sent wrongfully back to violent life-threatening conditions - because their cases will be further delayed and they will have even more difficulty getting witnesses and evidence to support their claims.”
Asylum seekers should seek out an immigration attorney to help deal with these changes and get the necessary evidence together on an accelerated timeline. Those who have already filed an asylum claim should also check with a lawyer to see how his or her claim is affected. In New Orleans, we work closely with the local asylum office and may be able to expedite an interview or get a case on the cancellation list to keep the wait time down.