Seeking Shelter

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Issue 1, Volume 114

By Solomon Binyaminov 

Trigger warning: brief mention of rape

When I was six years old, my family and I came to the United States because of the religious persecution we were facing in our homeland. We applied as asylum seekers because that was one of the only ways to enter the country legally. Unbeknownst to us, we were actually trapping ourselves in a broken system for the next eight years. Because of the state of the asylum system, we are virtually unable to see any of our family living in our native country, get a house, or pay for college without taking on huge debt. When discussing immigration policy, nearly everyone, including politicians and the media, focuses solely on the Mexican border. In 2019, an astounding 89 percent of asylum officers were reassigned from asylum cases to other duties, including some at the southern border. The asylum problem, however, is just as worthy of our attention. 

In theory, an asylum seeker is allowed to stay and work in the United States until they get an asylee interview, which determines if they can be granted permanent residency in the US. In practice, however, this interview may never be held. Although U.S. law requires that asylum interviews generally be conducted within 45 days of filing, the government disregards its own laws, and wait times for the scheduling of asylum interviews may be extended indefinitely. As of 2023, there are 1.6 million pending asylum cases, with only 850 asylum officers employed to cover them. As more asylum seekers enter the country, the backlog will only worsen. Along with the disastrous ratio of cases to officers, recent policies have exacerbated this issue. The “last in, first out” policy (LIFO) is the most prominent of these. The policy makes it so that asylum seekers who came to the US within the last 21 days have priority for interview scheduling, meaning people on the end of the backlog will wait decades to be processed. However, despite its purpose, LIFO hasn’t cut down the backlog and fails to address the systematic deprioritization of asylum seekers by the United States.

Asylees face a number of horrible problems because of this. The worst of these is the possibility of being deported. After living in the U.S. for years, working here, building a family, and cementing their life, an asylee may suddenly be deported after an officer decides that they don’t believe them. In fact, this happens pretty frequently. Over two-thirds of affirmative asylum claims are denied. Allowing people to set down roots in the country, letting them get away from whatever discrimination, abuse, or torture they suffered in the past, and then sending them back to the place where it happened is extremely unethical. One asylum attorney described observing asylum interviews where the asylum officers were “looking really purposefully and aggressively toward any indication that there is an inconsistency or any indication that there is a lack of credibility and asking confusing and adversarial questions to try to trip up clients into misstating a minor or irrelevant fact or detail.” Moreover, despite the complexity of asylum law and the life-or-death consequences of wrong decisions, there is no right to counsel in immigration proceedings. Even barring deportation, leaving people in limbo and potentially compounding their trauma from persecution experienced in their home countries is still horrible.

Several other issues result from being unable to become a citizen or permanent resident. Part of this is being unable to bring relatives or family members to the United States. Andra Barron, a program manager at Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, writes about some of her most severe cases: “One applicant was a mother with a 14-year-old daughter in Ethiopia. Her daughter was raped as punishment for her mother being a known dissident.” Had her mother’s interview been processed promptly, she could have brought her daughter to the U.S. and prevented the assault. Human Rights First writes, “Those caught in the backlog include: A father, who has been separated from his children for six years and had his request to expedite his asylum case denied despite his brother’s political imprisonment in Yemen and efforts by a local militia to target his teenage son; an asylum seeker from the Central African Republic who has not seen his three daughters or wife in more than four years; and a CAR asylum seeker, who had not seen his wife and three daughters for more than four years.”

Even in the best-case scenarios, where applicants are able to bring their whole family, they will simply never integrate as actual Americans. Alex Bukasa, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, wrote about his experiences with the current system: “You start building a life here; you begin to clothe yourself with the spirit of the place and all that. And you develop a sense of belonging to the place and the community. But you’re also scared of the situation back home. You don’t know if they’re going to deport you.” Despite living in the U.S. for nearly a decade, going to college, working, and paying taxes here, he’ll never get to truly be an American. Because of the constant fear of having his life uprooted and the fact that he will likely never be franchised, he never really belongs. 

Pending asylees also have a hard time with upward mobility. Part of this is the fact that most mortgage lenders deny homebuyers with pending asylum status. To banks, it’s simply too much of a risk to give a loan to someone whose residency and ability to pay back the loan may change in a day. Another constraint on asylees is the lack of student aid for college. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which nearly every prospective college student fills out, doesn’t categorize people with pending asylum applications as eligible non-citizens, meaning they aren’t allowed to fill out the form. Combined with the difficulty of getting personal loans (for the same reasons mortgages are unavailable), obtaining higher education is rare for asylees and their children. 

Simply put, the current asylum model is unsustainable. By raising awareness of the problem, though, politicians and policymakers will be forced to address the issue. Whether it be by drastically increasing the number of asylum officers, ensuring access to advance parole for applicants with urgent reasons to travel abroad temporarily, setting a clear asylum policy with strict timelines, reversing LIFO, or fully restructuring the immigration system, millions of people should no longer have to live in fear.