U.S. Government Swamped by Refugees' Requests for Asylum

Group of Syrian refugees entering Jordan
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Even as the United States is allowing more foreign refugees into the United States, the federal government is strained by a soaring number of requests for asylum, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) ombudsman.

In March 2016, the Government Accountability Office warned Congress that the Department of Homeland Security suffered from a “limited ability” to detect bogus refugees illegally attempting to remain in the U.S. by filing fraudulent claims for asylum.

And in her Annual Report to Congress, USCIS ombudsman Maria M. Odom said the agency’s backlog of asylum request cases still pending at the end of 2015 had grown by 1,400%—yes, one thousand four hundred percent—since 2011.

When a refugee is granted asylum they become eligible for lawful permanent resident (green card) status after one year of continuous presence in the United States. Under the current federal law, no more than 10,000 asylees per year can be granted lawful permanent resident status. The number can be adjusted by the President of the United States.

In order to be granted asylum, the refugee must prove a “credible and reasonable fear” that returning to their home nations would result in persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

How Large Is the Asylum Backlog and Why Is It Growing?

Short answer: It’s big and growing fast.

According to ICE ombudsman Odom’s report, USCIS had more than 128,000 asylum requests still in pending status as of January 1, 2016, and new applications, now totaling 83, 197, have more than doubled since 2011. 

According to the report, at least five factors have caused the soaring backlog of asylum requests.

  • A continuing high number of credible and reasonable fear of persecution determinations;
  • The sudden and steady increase in new asylum applications;
  • A spike in the number of asylum applications filed by Unaccompanied Alien Children in deportation proceedings;
  • The temporary reassignment of significant numbers of Asylum Officers to the Refugee Affairs Division in an attempt to deal with the backlog; and
  • A high turnover rate among USCIS officials who investigate asylum requests.

The U.S. Will Accept Even More Refugees

The challenges faced by USCIS are not likely to be lessened by the Obama administration’s expanded refugee policy.

On September 27, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that the U.S. would accept 85,000 refugees during 2016, an increase of 15,000 and that the number would increase to 100,000 refugees in 2017.  

Kerry added that the new refugees would first be referred to the United Nations, then screened by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and, if accepted, resettled around the United States. Once accepted, they would have the option of applying for asylum, green card status, and full U.S. citizenship through the naturalization process.

Try as They Might, CIS Cannot Keep up

It’s not like USCIS hasn’t been trying to reduce the asylum request backlog.

According to ombudsman Odom, the agency has reassigned many of its asylum officers to its Refugee Affairs Division to deal with the massive influx of people displaced from their home countries by terrorism and political and religious persecution.

“At the same time, the agency has allocated vast resources to refugee processing in the Middle East and to the critical national security activities involved in that effort,” wrote Odom in her report.

However, as noted, “Despite significant efforts by the Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate’s Asylum Division to respond to this pending caseload, such as doubling the Asylum Officer Corps, the backlog of cases and processing delays continues to expand.”

Other Problems at USCIS Affect Military Readiness

The USCIS ombudsman’s report is issued annually to inform Congress of the biggest and most challenging problems facing the agency and the overall immigration process.

Other problems reported by ombudsman Odom included the failure of USCIS to process asylum requests by refugee children from Central America, and long delays in processing naturalization requests from members of the U.S. military and their family members.

In addition, noted the report, USCIS has failed to issues guidelines for dealing with naturalization applications from family members of active-duty and reserve members of the US military and the National Guard, “resulting in inconsistent treatment of individuals.”

However, Odom noted that the FBI had to share some of the blame.

“While USCIS field offices diligently work to mitigate ongoing processing delays in military naturalization applications by communicating with USCIS military liaison officers, the agency has no control over the FBI background checks and can take no action on an application until that process is complete,” she wrote. “These delays undermine the purpose of USCIS’ ‘Naturalization at Basic Training’ initiative, and affect military readiness because soldiers are unable to deploy with their units abroad or obtain necessary security clearances.”