Lives on hold: Syr­ian asy­lum-seek­ers are stuck in DHS sys­tem

Back­log is traced to hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in Cen­tral Amer­ica

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY SEAN LYNGAAS na­tional@wash­post.com

Basileus Zeno sim­ply wants an an­swer. The Syr­ian aca­demic has been wait­ing nearly two years to be in­ter­viewed by the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity about his ap­pli­ca­tion for asy­lum, but no word has come.

“They don’t give you any de­tails,” he said, as if “your whole life should be pending.”

Zeno was pur­su­ing his PhD in ar­chae­ol­ogy in Da­m­as­cus in 2012 when fight­ing be­tween Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s forces and op­po­si­tion groups in­ten­si­fied around the Syr­ian cap­i­tal. He left to en­roll in a mas­ter’s pro­gram at Ohio Uni­ver­sity, and as Syria con­tin­ued to dis­in­te­grate, he de­cided that re­turn­ing home was not an op­tion.

Zeno’s ar­ti­cles crit­i­cal of the As­sad regime and Is­lamist groups seek­ing to top­ple it have brought death threats, he said, adding that mil­i­tants have killed sev­eral mem­bers of his fam­ily.

Zeno is a drop in the sea of more than 4 mil­lion peo­ple who have fled a war in Syria that has claimed about a quar­ter of a mil­lion lives since March 2011. A to­tal of 1,582 Syr­i­ans filed new cases for asy­lum in the United States in fis­cal 2014, and 633 did so in the first half of fis­cal 2015, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent data from DHS.

The Syr­ian ap­pli­cants have en­tered an Amer­i­can asy­lum sys­tem that legal ex­perts say is un­der-re­sourced and over­whelmed by a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in Cen­tral Amer­ica.

“The im­mi­gra­tion courts in some lo­cales have be­come so back­logged that they’re not even able to en­ter new cases” into the sys­tem, said An­wen Hughes, deputy legal direc­tor at Hu­man Rights First, an ad­vo­cacy group that of­fers pro bono legal rep­re­sen­ta­tion to asy­lum-seek­ers. “There are a lot of vic­tims of very se­vere trauma in this pop­u­la­tion” of Syr­i­ans, she said, and not hav­ing sta­tus “pro­longs their sense of in­se­cu­rity.”

Once a case has been pending for 150 days, the ap­pli­cant is el­i­gi­ble to ap­ply for work au­tho­riza­tion, as Zeno did re­cently, he said, be­cause his schol­ar­ship fund­ing had run out. He is still wait­ing to hear back on his work sta­tus.

Nadeen Alji­jakli, a Cleve­land­based Syr­ian Amer­i­can lawyer, says get­ting in­ter­views for her dozens of Syr­ian clients has been hit or miss. “If we don’t get an in­ter­view within six weeks, that means it’s prob­a­bly gone to the black hole,” she said.

There are two ways of gain­ing asy­lum in the United States: through an “af­fir­ma­tive” process, in which one ap­plies within a year of ar­riv­ing in the coun­try; or a “de­fen­sive” op­tion, when one is in the process of be­ing de­ported. For the af­fir­ma­tive route that Zeno took, ob­tain­ing an in­ter­view be­fore an of­fi­cer in the U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices (USCIS), a DHS agency, is a key hur­dle in mov­ing a case along, and it is sup­posed to oc­cur within 45 days of a case be­ing filed.

Yet im­mi­gra­tion lawyers say it is not un­usual for those who have ap­plied for asy­lum within the last two years to wait a year or more for an in­ter­view. Lawyers trace the back­log in asy­lum cases to a surge in ap­pli­ca­tions from Cen­tral Amer­ica in fis­cal 2013. More than 36,000 mi­grants, mostly from Gu­atemala, El Sal­vador and Hon­duras, re­quested asy­lum at the south­west­ern U.S. bor­der that year, al­most triple the 2012 fig­ure.

“The hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion on the south­ern bor­der has led USCIS to re­al­lo­cate re­sources to ad­dress the in­flux of mi­grants at­tempt­ing to cross into the United States un­law­fully,” said Daniel Cos­grove, a spokesman for the agency. “This has caused an in­crease in our back­log of asy­lum cases.”

USCIS has re­sponded to the flood of ap­pli­ca­tions by hir­ing 175 of­fi­cers for its eight asy­lum of­fices around the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to a no­tice on the agency’s Web site.

But those of­fi­cers need to be trained and as­signed, which takes time.

For im­mi­gra­tion lawyers such as Ja­son Dzubow, who said he has han­dled about 50 asy­lum cases from Syria in re­cent years, that can’t hap­pen soon enough. De­spite the new hires, he said, “we in the field are not see­ing our cases that have been wait­ing and wait­ing and wait­ing be­ing sched­uled for in­ter­views.”

Dree Col­lopy, a Wash­ing­ton­based lawyer who chairs a com­mit­tee on asy­lum and refugees at the Amer­i­can Im­mi­gra­tion Lawyers As­so­ci­a­tion, was skep­ti­cal that the new staff mem­bers will be able to make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence. “I don’t know that the amount of of­fi­cers that they’ve hired is enough to re­ally ad­dress the back­log in a mean­ing­ful way,” she said.

Mean­while, Syr­ian ap­pli­cants are in legal limbo. Zeno said his case hasn’t budged since he ap­plied for asy­lum in July 2013.

Farah Nasif is play­ing a sim­i­lar wait­ing game. Is­lamic State mil­i­tants raided her home town of Deir al-Zour, in eastern Syria, where Nasif said she had worked on a U.S.-funded pro­gram to re­open schools closed by an­other group of Is­lamists. The pro­gram shut down last sum­mer as the Is­lamic State’s con­trol of the area grew. In Novem­ber, she ap­plied for asy­lum in the United States.

While wait­ing for that ver­dict, Nasif ap­plied for Tem­po­rary Pro­tected Sta­tus, which DHS re­des­ig­nated for Syr­ian na­tion­als in Jan­uary. Pro­tected sta­tus would al­low her to have a So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber. With­out a valid pass­port or a driver’s li­cense, Nasif said she is strug­gling to es­tab­lish an iden­tity in the United States.

“I’m not il­le­gal, but they deal with you like [an] il­le­gal,” she said. Nasif, who has worked as a jour­nal­ist in Syria and as a fel­low at a U.S. think tank, is await­ing word on her ap­pli­ca­tions for both pro­tected sta­tus and asy­lum. Ac­cord­ing to USCIS data, Syr­i­ans have a high ap­proval rate for asy­lum — about 80 per­cent in fis­cal 2013 and 2014.

But the fre­quently long wait for a ver­dict takes a toll, im­mi­gra­tion lawyers say.

“With­out any­thing, you are not able to study, you are not able to travel . . . and you are just wait­ing,” Nasif said. It is, she said, “like you are in a pri­son.”

“You are not able to study, you are not able to travel . . . and you are just wait­ing.”

Farah Nasif, asy­lum ap­pli­cant

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