Astounding Asylum Numbers in DOS Refugee Report for FY 2021
Center for Immigration Studies
October 28, 2020
The Department of State (DOS) — with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — transmitted their Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2021 on September 30. My colleague Nayla Rush broke down that report, and the changes that the Biden-Harris ticket has proposed to the number of entries, in an October 6 post, but three statistics stick out therein: the number of aliens seeking asylum from DHS, the number seeking asylum as relief from removal from the immigration courts, and the credible fear grant rate in FY 2020.
Aliens who are present in the United States may seek what is called “affirmative asylum” from asylum officers (AOs) in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency in DHS. AOs may grant or deny those aliens asylum.
If an AO opts not to grant the alien asylum, and the alien is removable (as most are), the AO can refer the alien to immigration court (part of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) within the Department of Justice (DOJ)), for the alien to renew that application as a defensive application (relief from removal) in removal proceedings.
In addition to adjudicating those affirmative asylum applications, AOs also consider “credible fear” claims for aliens in expedited removal proceedings under section 235(b)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Those AOs can find that the alien has credible fear (in which case the alien is referred to immigration court to file an asylum application before an immigration judge (IJ) in removal proceedings), or determine that the alien does not have credible fear (in which case the alien can ask an IJ to review the AO’s decision).
There were an average of 500 to 550 AOs at USCIS in recent years (USCIS is authorized for 745 AOs), but last year USCIS announced that it planned to hire 500 new employees in the asylum branch of the agency (half of whom would be AOs; the rest staff), and, as of October 2019, they were on track to meet that goal. In a February 2020 report, however, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was critical of USCIS’s efforts to train those AOs to perform credible fear screenings.
The number of such credible fear referrals skyrocketed in FY 2019, as almost one million aliens entered the United States illegally along the Southwest border or sought entry without proper documents at the ports of entry along that border. As GAO noted: “The number of referrals for credible fear screenings in the first two quarters of fiscal year 2019 alone was larger than the total number of referrals in each of fiscal years 2014 and 2015.”
In fact, AOs completed 5,523 credible fear cases in FY 2009, but in FY 2019, it completed 102,204 (out of 105,439 cases received) — a more than 1,750 percent increase. To help out, DHS assigned refugee officers, former AOs, and (in a controversial move), Border Patrol agents to handle interviews. A federal judge blocked that last effort in August.
All of which brings me back to the DOS report. As of August 31, according to the department, there were 598,692 asylum claims (in addition to credible fear claims) pending with USCIS. Assuming that there were the authorized 745 AOs on that date (the actual number — a moving target — is hard to find), that means that each AO is assigned almost 804 cases to adjudicate — not counting new cases that will be added.
In my experience, AOs generally take two hours to conduct interviews and complete about two per day, but USCIS’s statistics show a much lower completion rate. In September 2019, according to USCIS, AOs conducted 2,799 interviews and completed 6,286 cases. Assuming that there were 500 AOs at the time (likely on the low side), that means they each held 5.6 interviews each that month and completed 12.6 cases per capita — much fewer than one a day.
On top of the AOs’ asylum workload, according to DOS, there were 549,724 asylum claims (as of June 30) pending with the nation’s 520 IJs (the latter as of October — 20 new IJs were on-boarded on October 9, meaning that the number in June was actually closer to 500).
Again, that means that each IJ is assigned 1,057 asylum cases. As a former IJ, I generally completed one to two asylum cases per day, and at best IJs can hear approximately four (assuming that the alien shows up and is ready to go at the merits hearing date, which does not always happen). Consequently, as the Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse (TRAC) reported, in 2019 asylum applicants in immigration court on average waited almost three years for their cases to be decided, time that they will spend in the United States — and a timeframe that does not count appeals.
And, again, the DOS report does not count any new asylum cases that have been filed in the interim in immigration court.
Combined, however, these statistics show that there were 1,148,416 pending asylum cases in the United States — at a minimum. If those applicants were a state, they would be the 43rd largest in the United States, ahead of Montana, Rhode Island, Delaware, the Dakotas, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming.
Plus, as the foregoing shows, an asylum applicant denied by USCIS can renew his or her claim with the immigration court. In September 2019, for example, AOs approved 34 percent of the asylum claims they adjudicated (1,501), and referred (for one reason or another) 66 percent (2,901). Those cases — assuming that the aliens actually appear in immigration court — will end up on the IJs’ dockets.
This is a hole that the AOs and IJs will not be able to dig themselves out of without a massive increase in resources.
The Trump administration has, in fact, increased the total number of IJs by 70 percent and, as noted, has at least tried to increase the number of AOs by 50 percent. Joe Biden vows to double the number of IJs (as well as the number of EOIR staff and interpreters), but that hiring will take time and a significant increase in resources — resources Congress, which is stingy when it comes to immigration, may not fund. Much more here.