Posted on December 24, 2019

Bureaucracy as a Weapon: How the Trump Administration Is Slowing Asylum Cases

Charles Davis, The Guardian, December 23, 2019

One man came to America fleeing political persecution in Cuba, only to have his application for asylum rejected because his attorney had not listed a middle name – a middle name he does not have.

Another asylum-seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo had their application rejected, in part, for putting a dash (“–”) in the space to list other names they have gone by – even though they have never gone by any other name.

And a child from El Salvador, who entered the country alone, dutifully listed the names of their two siblings – only to have their application rejected because the form provided space for four names and the child left the two remaining spaces blank.

Cases like these are becoming alarmingly frequent, immigration attorneys say, as the Trump administration increasingly refuses to process asylum applications for pedantic reasons. Over a half-dozen immigration attorneys across the country interviewed by the Guardian describe how the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has returned applications unprocessed over the equivalent of failing to dot an I or cross a T – a shift with potentially life-altering consequences for their vulnerable clients.

The rejection of an application by USCIS does not necessarily mean the client won’t get a chance to fix the application and send it back again. But it does force asylum seekers to begin their claim afresh, at best delaying a person’s ability to work and, at worst, jeopardizing their ability to remain in the country at all.

It is not clear how many applications have been refused over such minor issues, but the American Immigration Lawyers Association says such reports “have recently grown more frequent”. The group traces it back to October, when USCIS modified the language on its website to state that it would decline to process an asylum application “if you leave any fields blank” – something immigration attorneys had been doing largely without a problem for years.

That little-noticed revision has had a big impact.

Any asylum-seeker who has an application sent back will, at the very least, suffer economically. They need that work permit to legally earn money, and the year-long waiting period for one only begins when an application is processed successfully.

Others, however, may receive their rejection notice after their window to apply for asylum in the US has already expired.

A USCIS spokesperson said the agency “may view this as an extraordinary circumstance” and allow the person more time to apply. But in an often confounding immigration system, the extra delay means more time, money and energy – and some decide to give up.

In private Facebook groups, frustrated attorneys have been uploading screenshots of applications rejected over irrelevant spaces left unfilled. One lawyer posted an application turned back because it did not list a passport expiration date despite writing “N/A” in the section for a passport number, clearly indicating that the client had entered the country without a passport or any documentation at all.

Lindsay Harris, the co-director of the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia, says the government rejecting forms over a minor issue is not unheard of. But the current situation feels unprecedented, and troubling, she said.

“The frequency with which we’ve seen it happening … that is new, and my sense is that this is just one more way to reject asylum seekers,” said Harris, who also serves as board vice-chair at the Asylum Seeker Assistance Project.

For many the change is clearly a brick in Trump’s “invisible wall” – a slew of bureaucratic barriers designed to stymie immigration.

“There were always occasional rejections before,” said Elizabeth Keyes, director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, “but the volume in the past 4-6 weeks is something altogether new.”

“The Trump administration has turned bureaucratic travesties into a feature,” she said.

Tracie Klinke, an attorney in Marietta, Georgia, calls the development “frightening and ridiculous and awful”. Klinke has been filing asylum applications for a decade. “Ten years as a practicing attorney – dashes, blank spaces? They were fine,” she said.

In response to questions about the new application guidance and its consequences, a USCIS spokesperson explained that sections on a form that are irrelevant to the applicant should be filled out with responses such as “none”, “unknown” or “not applicable”.

The Trump administration resettled zero refugees in October, and it has plans to resettle no more than 18,000 in the year to come. On 8 November, it announced it would begin charging asylum-seekers a fee to apply for asylum. And on 14 November, it proposed a new rule barring asylum-seekers from obtaining work until a year after they applied, up from the current six months.

Rejecting asylum applications over a blank space is just another way of making it as difficult as possible to seek refuge in the US, says Klinke. “It’s just one more thing that this administration has done to make it harder for people.”

Even longtime attorneys used to navigating the system say they’ve reached new heights of frustration. The East Bay Sanctuary Covenant in Berkeley, California, for instance, has been helping immigrants fleeing war and political persecution apply for asylum since 1982 – over 5,000 of them, with a 97.5% success rate, according to Michael Smith, the group’s director. In November, its longstanding and demonstrably effective approach stopped working so well.

The first question on the form for asylum-seekers asks the applicant to list their alien registration number, social security number and USCIS account number – “if any” such numbers exist, the form states. “We never put anything in those boxes previously,” Smith said. Now, he says, they often get sent back.

“This is all very petty and can only be designed to slow down the asylum process, and maybe discourage applicants who do not have representation,” Smith said. “And seeing this petty bullshit is bad for our blood pressure.”

Many lawyers interviewed for this story asked to keep their clients’ stories anonymous, over concerns that speaking out could affect their future chances of gaining asylum. But they say the effect on people has been devastating.

Marina Andrei, a lawyer in Newport Beach, California, had an application rejected over a failure to write “none” in the field for “travel document” – even though she had already listed the clients’ passport numbers on the application, indicating these were the documents they had presented upon arrival, not a “travel document” issued by USCIS. That one was a particularly strong case, she said, involving a family of four.

“They should’ve been interviewed by now. They should’ve had an approval by now,” she said. Instead “they’re just waiting around, afraid to even go outside”.