Every day, the Trump administration wages war on immigrants. Most notably, the administration has ordered the travel ban, reduced refugee admissions, terminated DACA, ended Temporary Protected Status programs, directed ICE agents to arrest immigrants in courthouses, and targeted immigrant community leaders for deportation.
A few days ago, the Department of Homeland Security quietly - and without warning - reversed the order in which it schedules asylum interviews. This may seem like a minor procedural change, but it massively shakes up the lives of asylum seekers awaiting their interviews.
Under this new policy, asylum offices across the country will schedule asylum interviews in the reverse order in which the applications were received.
Moving forward, individuals who submit an asylum application will have their interviews scheduled within 21 days. The asylum seekers who filed their applications before the new policy came into effect will be scheduled for their interviews in reverse chronological order.
The most devastating consequence of this new policy is that the several thousand asylum seekers who have already been backlogged for two to four years, and were expecting an interview soon, now have their applications delayed indefinitely.
According to USCIS, which hears asylum cases on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, “the aim [of this new policy] is to deter individuals from using asylum backlogs solely to obtain employment authorization by filing frivolous, fraudulent or otherwise non-meritorious asylum applications.”
This proposed justification reinforces the dangerous and inaccurate idea peddled by the Trump administration that asylum seekers come to the U.S. not to seek protection from human rights violations, but to seek economic opportunities.
We at RIF Asylum Support know that this is not the case. Most of our clients were professionals or activists in their home countries, and their lives were threatened because of their political views, social activism, or sexual orientation. A great deal of these individuals actually had better economic status in the countries they were forced to leave.
Whether it was Fatima, involved in fighting gender violence and religious extremism in her native Pakistan, Pap, a journalist imprisoned by his government in West Africa for denouncing corruption, or Julian, a prominent LGBTQ activist in Malaysia, these individuals had no other choice but to flee.
Many of the asylum seekers RIF serves were physicians, journalists, nonprofit executives, or university professors in their home countries, where they led upper or middle class lifestyles. Several of our clients traveled abroad to attend human rights conferences and workshops, including being invited by the U.S. State Department to present their work.
"Given what we know about the current administration’s disdain for immigrants and human rights, it is a reprehensible lie that this new policy is about combating fraud or reducing the asylum backlog,” says Caitlin Steinke, an asylum attorney who provides free legal consultations to RIF's community of asylum seekers. “This new policy is just the latest example of the viciously racist and anti-immigrant Trump administration purposefully targeting forms of humanitarian relief for people who have come to the United States seeking protection.”
Unlike in Canada or European countries, asylum seekers in the U.S. do not receive any government support until they are granted asylum. The only “benefit” they receive is a work permit — which reduces the risk of them becoming a “burden” by granting the authorization to work lawfully, obtain a Social Security number, and pay taxes.
With a work permit, an asylum seeker is generally able to secure a survival job, such as a dishwasher or home cleaner. They work long hours for minimum wage in order to rent or share a room — or if they are lucky, to send some money home to their loved ones.
Since asylum seekers can only petition for their spouses and children to join them in safety after they are granted asylum, the backlogged interview process already keeps families separated for years. During these long waits, it is common for the family members back home to be forced into hiding as a method of survival.
Why would anyone choose such a grim life unless they had no other option?
RIF supports efforts to reduce the asylum backlog, but such efforts should include prioritizing the cases of those asylum seekers who have been waiting the longest. This week’s dramatic change to the interview scheduling policy does not include any mechanism to ensure that those who have already been waiting several years to have their claims heard will be scheduled for an interview in any reasonable amount of time. In fact, the policy keeps them at the very end of the queue.
When asylum seekers came to New York to seek protection, they were caught in the huge backlog in the asylum system. Many of our clients have now been waiting over three years for an asylum interview. To punish those who have already suffered persecution, years of separation from their loved ones, and an indefinite period of uncertainty about their futures, is unnecessarily cruel.
“The asylum interview is the opportunity for asylum seekers to fight for their right to live with human dignity, free from human rights abuses and violence,” says Ms. Steinke. “The indefinite extension of the existing backlog burdening the U.S. asylum program is incredibly traumatic for thousands of asylum seekers, especially because it reinforces the hateful lies and stereotypes promulgated by the Trump administration.”
No, Mr. Trump, asylum seekers are not frauds with bogus claims. They are here because they thought the U.S. would live up to its commitment to human rights and offer protection to those who need it most.