Biden administration must end asylum policy for torture survivors
Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the Biden administration can end the Migrant Protection Protocols, a cruel, Trump-era policy that forced migrants applying for asylum to wait in Mexico for their asylum hearings. Over 70,000 migrants, mostly from Central America, have been sent back to Mexico to live in dangerous conditions in that country.
But there is another cruel Trump-era policy, instituted in 2018, that President Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas refuse to end. This administration continues to punish survivors of torture who entered the U.S. legally and applied for asylum five, six or seven years ago. These torture survivors are part of the “affirmative asylum” backlog over 430,000 cases stuck in the asylum division of USCIS, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of Homeland Security.
Many survivors, like the ones I work with who now live in Maryland, Washington, D.C.; New York and California, were persecuted for speaking out against dictatorships or exposing government corruption, or because of their religion or sexual orientation.
The Biden administration and Secretary Mayorkas claim that they treat asylum-seekers more humanely than the previous administration. This may be true for some populations, like Central Americans who were forced to live under deplorable conditions in Mexico. But the situation for torture survivors who entered the U.S. with visas from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia — has actually deteriorated under this administration.
One of these survivors is Qaiser Ali from Pakistan. He worked with the International Rescue Committee for eight years and founded a nonprofit to support the families of 122 children who were killed or injured by the Pakistani Taliban. He was kidnapped by the Pakistani Taliban — just as brutal as the Afghan Taliban — for 12 days in October 2015.
Mr. Ali fled to the United States and has waited more than six years for an interview with an asylum officer. When he inquired about his status with USCIS, he was told that people like him are “low priority” for the agency. Asylum-seekers who have recently entered the U.S. and applied for asylum are a higher priority than he is.
Fekade Ancho was a senior accountant at Ethiopian Airlines and a union leader. He contracted polio at a young age, leaving him partially paralyzed. But Mr. Ancho’s disability only made him stronger and more determined to fight for his own rights and for the employees of Ethiopian Airlines. When Ethiopia’s ruling party insisted on replacing union members with political party loyalists, he resisted.
After being subjected to both physical and psychological torture, Mr. Ancho decided to seek protection in the United States. He filed for asylum in November 2016, over five years ago. Since then, he has become depressed and frightened because it appears that USCIS has no intention of ever allowing him to present his asylum case.
“I am so worried about my safety and security,” he says. I have a great fear of invisible and visible attacks on me if I am forced to return to Ethiopia because of my past persecution and because I criticize this Ethiopian government on social media.”
“Chris” is a transgender man from Cameroon who has waited seven years for USCIS to schedule an interview for him. “The constant fear of not knowing my future is a nightmare,” he says, “and puts me in a constant state of stress and anxiety. The anti-transgender political environment in the United States is frightening, but just as bad is the fear that the asylum office has forgotten about people like me.”
There are no court orders preventing the Biden administration from deciding to stop punishing torture survivors and other affirmative asylum-seekers. There are no Republican governors calling on USCIS to maintain its current system of refusing to interview asylum-seekers waiting seven years for an interview. And there are no members of the U.S. Congress speaking out in favor of the current system. In fact, 40 Members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary Mayorkas and USCIS Director Ur Jaddou in September 2021 that recommended how this problem can be solved. But USCIS has still not made the necessary changes.
Meanwhile torture survivors are suffering a “double trauma” — the trauma of torture in their countries and the psychological trauma of the never-ending wait for an asylum interview. Some are becoming so desperate that they have attempted suicide, according to the director of one torture treatment center and several asylum attorneys.
How will USCIS react if one day an asylum seeker does succeed in committing suicide because they have lost hope of ever being able to present their case to an asylum officer?