a black woman asylum-seeker holds her daughter
A migrant mother carries her child while waiting to board a Greyhound bus to San Antonio after crossing the Rio Grande on Sept. 22, 2021, in Del Rio, Texas. Thousands of immigrants, mostly from Haiti, seeking asylum have crossed the Rio Grande into the United States. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Over 430,000 affirmative asylum-seekers have been subject to a processing policy referred to as “Last in, First Out” (LIFO) that prioritizes recently submitted applications over older cases. A person who applies for affirmative asylum this year should have their interview within 45 days, but the wait is averaging 1,621 days. For those who applied in 2015, 2016, or 2017 when the backlog began, the delay has lasted seven years. 

Former President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency responsible for processing affirmative asylum applications, to reinstate the LIFO system in 2018. According to USCIS, the policy was originally introduced in 1995 by then-President Bill Clinton to reduce the backlog and deter asylum-seekers who apply as a means to obtain work authorization. LIFO was in place for 20 years until December 2014, when then-President Barack Obama’s administration temporarily adopted a “First-In-First-Out” (FIFO) scheduling system, processing applications as they arrived. However, according to immigration advocates, the policy has failed to reduce the backlog, with the backlog increasing by 450,000 cases from 163,000 in 2017, right before LIFO was reinstated, to 614,000 in 2020. 

The wait has also forced thousands of asylum-seekers to live in constant uncertainty about their status. 

Erez, a Kurdish asylum-seeker from Turkey, applied in 2016 and has also been waiting for an interview ever since. Erez was a college student at the time, and police were attacking Kurdish students. Erez fled Turkey and came to the U.S. to find safety. Erez said he has had to reapply for a work permit every two years but has yet to receive his most recent work authorization card because of the backlog. On March 29, Biden announced actions to address the work permit backlog and immigration applications, but the measures do not apply directly to processing affirmative asylum cases.

“There’s uncertainty,” Erez said. “I’m not sure when they will address my application; after all this time, I’m just waiting.”

Andrea Barron, the advocacy program manager for Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, said the asylum-seekers and torture survivors are suffering the most from LIFO. Many applicants are separated from family members who are still in their home countries. According to Barron, applicants report that their children experience ongoing violence and are punished for their parents being known as dissidents. One applicant was a mother with a 14-year-old daughter in Ethiopia. Her daughter was raped as punishment for her mother being a known dissident. According to Barron, had her mother gotten an interview, she could have brought her daughter to the U.S. and prevented the attack.

“Torture survivors have experienced significant trauma and are left in limbo, often separated from their families, and this exacerbates the trauma,” Barron said. “These tragic outcomes could have been avoided had their applications been processed promptly.”

Barron has been advocating for a concrete solution to the problem. She suggests that USCIS hire asylum officers designated to address asylum applications that were filed five or more years ago. While USCIS says they have increased the number of authorized asylum officers from 273 in 2013 to 771 in 2019, Barron said this increase has had hardly any effect on increasing the number of interviews for torture survivors and other asylum-seekers waiting more than five years for an interview.

“The big question is, how are you going to use those asylum officers?” Barron said. “Are any of them going to be able to interview the people who are waiting five years for their interview?

Barron suggests a portion of asylum officers should work back-to-front. Her suggestion was supported by Rep. Jerry Nadler and 39 other members of Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a letter they sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and USCIS Director Ur Jaddou on Sept. 9, 2021.

“USCIS wants to make it look like they’re trying to solve the problem,” Barron said. “It will not solve the problem, the problem will be solved only when there is a designated number of asylum officers to work on these long-term cases.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to protect the name and safety of a source. (Updated: 04/03/2022)

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...