Asylum Seekers’ Arduous Journey Doesn’t End Once They Are in the United States

Asylum Seekers’ Arduous Journey Doesn’t End Once They Are in the United States

Asylum Seekers’ Arduous Journey Doesn’t End Once They Are in the United States

With a backlog of cases clogging up the immigration courts, some asylum-seekers wait up to 10 years for theirs to be heard—and remain without status until they are approved or denied.


Over the past several months, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has sent thousands of asylum seekers to New York. While finding shelter may be the migrants’ initial worry, it certainly won’t be their only concern.

Asylum seekers come to the United States seeking sanctuary after suffering in their home countries. But once they arrive here, they face additional struggles as they navigate the labyrinth of regulations, procedures, and assistance programs. With a hefty backlog of cases clogging up the immigration courts, some may need to wait up to 10 years for their case to be heard and remain without status until they are approved or denied.

The asylum process begins when a person arrives in the United States or a port of entry and declares that they cannot return home because of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or espousal of a particular political opinion. A person may apply for asylum once they are physically present in the country.

But once they make it here, asylum-seekers are met with a lack of support provided by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Refugees whose cases are approved before they arrive in the country receive aid such as cash, health care, and housing assistance. But asylum seekers are expected to figure it out for themselves, though most come with little to no savings.

Their status as nonresident aliens leads to difficulty finding work, and they don’t have access to financial aid from the federal government for higher education. While stuck in limbo, they may also contend with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression. and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Claudia Valentina Araujo Rivas, a 25-year-old Venezuelan asylum seeker, came to the United States in 2017 on a tourist visa. During her stay, her parents in Venezuela received a letter from the government stating that Rivas would be arrested because of her ties with Venezuelan politician Carlos Garcia.

Rivas applied for asylum in June 2018. However, her life has been far from normal as she waits—for a court date. “I was 20 when I arrived and I had dreams,” Rivas said. “But the reality is, I can’t have a plan, I can’t have a dream or anything because I am just waiting.”

Although she has made Florida her home, adjusted to the new culture, and learned English, she has not been able to work, complete her college degree, obtain a Social Security number, or maintain economic stability.

Asylum seekers can receive work permits 180 days after filing their asylum applications, according to the USCIS. But the first time Rivas went to court, the judge told her that they would stop her clock—meaning she would need to wait more than six months to receive her work permit. The judge did not give Rivas a reason as to why they stopped her clock.

Rivas’s court case has been postponed at least five times since 2018. The most recent update she received stated that her court date was once again postponed, with no future date specified.

“I tried to send letters to the judge asking them to resume my clock for the work permit and for my Social Security, but I never received an answer,” Rivas said. Without a Security number or Employment Authorization Document (EAD), she is unable to legally work.

Rivas’s husband, whom she met in Florida, is also a Venezuelan asylum seeker. He has been waiting for over seven years for an update on his case. Judges have not sent him an approval or denial for his asylum application. Without an approval, he remains without status. During his wait, he can apply for an EAD every two years. While he was able to receive a work permit and a restricted Social Security card, the Rivas family is on edge, fearing that they may be rejected any day.

“I’ve somewhat built a life here with my husband and my 10-month-old son that I’d like to continue. But it’s like if they want to call me tomorrow and say, no, I don’t accept your case, then they can deport me,” Rivas said.

The nation’s immigration court system is currently staring at a mountain of pending immigration cases nearing 2 million people—the largest in the past decade, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC program.

One main reason asylum seekers want their cases resolved as soon as possible, besides the anxiety of being deported any second, is because every time they try to rent a place; apply for schools, loans, and housing; get a new driver’s license; seek health care; or apply for a job, they face one simple but, for them, impossible question: “What’s your status?” The lack of status leads to suspicion and therefore requires extra documentation, which not all asylum seekers have.

“I want to work legally. I want to0 pay my taxes. I want to go to college and I want opportunities, but I am invisible here,” Rivas said.

USCIS claims on its website that a receipt and a date for a hearing should be issued within 180 days of an asylum application’s being filed, unless there are extenuating circumstances. However, because of the massive backlog, applicants on average now wait more than 1,500 days for a hearing in immigration court, according to TRAC. After they have a formal hearing, asylum seekers’ cases are deemed pending until they receive a decision on whether they have been accepted. This may also take another several months. If approved, they may apply for a green card if they have been physically present in the U.S. for at least a year. If declined, they can be deported.

One in six immigrants in pending asylum cases are still waiting for their hearing to be scheduled.

This delay was aggravated by the temporary shuttering of the courts during the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic, the lack of staffing, and the constant shift of border policies. The Trump administration took advantage of the pandemic to push forward restrictive immigration policies, including imposing Title 42, an order placed in 2020 that allowed immigration authorities to expel migrants to Mexico to await processing. While Title 42 has been in place, migrants have been expelled 2.5 million times in less than three years. Though Title 42 was set to expire in December, the Supreme Court ruled in December to allow it to remain in effect.

Part of the backlog also stems from Trump’s focus on handling cases at the border with Mexico, according to Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, a union. A Trump administration program in 2017 sent judges on short-term assignments to the border to try to speed up deportations and reduce the backlog. The program had the opposite effect, since judges had to leave behind their dockets and even cancel cases. There wasn’t enough staff to clear the dockets.

“Weeks and weeks of cases that you’re supposed to handle just get pushed to the end of your docket,” Tsankov said.

Many asylum seekers thought the process might get a little easier after President Joe Biden took office. He campaigned on promises to take a “fair and humane” approach to immigration policy and to make good on America’s commitment to asylum seekers and refugees. However, two years in, many migrants and human rights advocates have been left disappointed.

“President Biden ran on reversing a lot of the hateful rhetoric towards immigrants and refugees and asylees,” Adam Bates, supervisory policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project, said. “But I don’t think this administration has lived up to its rhetoric or to its campaign promises, really, across any of these systems.”

President Biden requested $56.7 billion for the Department of Homeland Security in the fiscal 2023 budget, which includes a 700 percent funding increase for USCIS and an 80 percent increase for immigration courts specifically to reduce case backlogs. The Biden administration announced new enforcement measures related to the border on January 5, stating that it is “surging additional resources to the border and the region, scaling up its anti-smuggling operations, and expanding coordination and support for border cities and non-governmental organizations.” These steps aim to address the issues at the Southwest border but do not tackle the immigration system itself, action many asylum seekers have been awaiting.

Little seems to have changed on the ground since Biden came to office, say those involved in the court system. The hiring process is very slow. Tsankov’s own clerk is struggling to keep up with cases they have to go through.

“I have not seen enough of an increase in staffing levels,” Tsankov said. “My clerk is working overtime, literally, on the weekends. And when I look at her desk, it’s just piled almost as high as she is with papers, folders, and files. And it’s like that all over the courthouse.”

Without more help, it’s hard for judges to do their jobs.

Hasan, a Turkish political asylum seeker who came to the States in 2017 with his family of four fleeing political threats, waited for more than five years to have his case heard.

“We’ve moved to three different states in the span of five years in hopes that our asylum case would be resolved sooner,” Hasan said.

Hasan did not want to use his full name in fear of putting his relatives back home in Turkey in danger.

The journey to the United States may be different for every family, but the asylum process is the same. Getting a job first is the first step, crucial because they need to pay for lawyers and application fees. But it’s not easy.

Hasan, 52, worked as a police officer in Turkey for more than 20 years. Although he finished his master’s degree and earned a PhD, he was unable to find a stable job in the US for the first three years because of his status.

“I worked on the streets at first, finding any job I could,” Hasan said.

His family has been working nonstop since they arrived—from nanny jobs to community service, cleaning jobs to cab driving. Initially, they were paid under the table. They later worked legally, but they are still struggling to find jobs that are permanent and with better pay.

“It took me years to get back to a place where my family can breathe,” said Hasan.

The family came to the United States with single suitcases, no savings, no plan, leaving everything behind. Hasan wanted to have a stable income and settle down into a family home within six years. “It’s tiring. It’s continuous, like survival mode,” Hafsa, 25, Hasan’s eldest daughter, said.

Hafsa started college seven years ago and is still on the road to getting her undergraduate degree. She was unable to receive financial aid because of her status as an asylum seeker.

Undocumented students, including DACA recipients and asylum seekers, can’t qualify for federal aid, but they can often qualify for aid, depending on the state or college. The student must first receive an approved status for federal aid.

With little to no resources, many asylum seekers are unable to start or continue their higher education, or it takes them years to complete college as they build a new life on the side. The years-long waiting in limbo, securing employment and trying to figure life out took a toll on the families’ mental health as well.

After three years of living in the US in a state of uncertainty, Hafsa decided to look for a therapist, but most were just too expensive for her. She later found an online therapist in Turkey, which she could afford.

She was diagnosed with major depression.

“On the outside, you’re laughing. You’re going to work,” Hafsa said. “It’s not like we can afford not to go to work. I can’t say, ‘Okay, today, I’m taking a day off,’ because that day off will cost me a lot of things. So I don’t necessarily have the opportunity to feel or reflect on the type of sadness that I’m feeling right now.”

About one in three asylum seekers experience depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

“The prolonged uncertainty about their future can have a deleterious effect on the psychosocial growth and psychological safety of kids who are waiting on their asylum decisions,” said Isok Kim, program director of the master’s of social work at the University at Buffalo, whose research focuses on the mental health and well-being of immigrants.

The uncertain wait takes years from families and forces most to continuously move around with the stress of possibly getting sent back to their country of persecution.

The process, however long and discouraging, does come to an end eventually, as it did for Hasan’s family. They finally received their asylum approval in June. After years of switching professions more than six times, Hasan finally settled down as a quality-assurance analyst. He also teaches online college courses in emergency management and public management. They are now using everything they have been saving up for their final move to Texas, where houses are more affordable.

Wearing a light grey hijab, Hafsa slowly packs her worn-out black suitcase for the “millionth” time in mid-August as she prepares to move into their new home in Dallas.

“Life is starting to feel more complete,” Hafsa said. “I just want this to be the last place so I can point to places years from now while passing by and talk about memories that I have there,” Hafsa said.

To tackle the backlog, the USCIS is currently considering new ways to improve the efficiency of asylum adjudications. It has requested approval to hire more than 4,000 employees by the end of the calendar year, and will be prioritizing asylum applicants needing immediate protection, giving interview waivers, and simplifying final decisions to increase case completions, the agency announced in May.

If cases were heard promptly, many of these struggles could be prevented for migrants looking to start a new life. President Biden has requested $765 million in the proposed fiscal year budget specifically for the USCIS to get through asylum cases. If approved, it is up to the USCIS to ensure that cases are resolved, and to prioritize those that have been pending for years so that asylum seekers aren’t further traumatized.

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