(This is part one of a two part blog post; to read part two, please follow this link. Please note that all client names are pseudonyms)
Sitting across the conference room table from Imani, we broke the bad news.
“We are so sorry, but your hearing tomorrow is cancelled. It’s been rescheduled to the end of the year.”
She burst into tears. Letting everything out at once, she sputtered, “Why again? Why is this happening?”
None of us were surprised by her reaction. When the call came the prior afternoon, we could not believe it. The court administrator explained that Imani’s hearing was being postponed. Again. Susan, the volunteer attorney who was the lead on Imani’s case, desperately pushed back. “We only have one witness. We think our case will be done in an hour and a half.”
The administrator paused, but stood firm. Without any explanation, the case was rescheduled 11 months out and there was nothing we could do about it. No matter that we had spent countless hours over the past month preparing, and were completely ready to present Imani’s case in court. No matter that this was the second time that her case had been rescheduled at the 11th hour. No matter that each time we prepared Imani for her testimony she had to relive the worst days of her life, when she was arrested in her home country, held for days, and repeatedly raped. No matter that once again, devastated, she would have to wait to see if she would be granted asylum in the United States, securing permanent safety and peace, and finally be able to look ahead with hope.
We explained to Imani that the postponement of her case had nothing to do with the merits of her claim or with her personally. These postponements are a regular occurrence, we told her, the product of an overwhelmed, under-resourced immigration system that is plagued with backlogs.
The backlogs in our asylum system have never been worse. Like Imani, almost all of our asylum clients are affected by delays. They come to the U.S. seeking freedom and protection, but instead of justice and peace of mind, the long wait times exacerbate their suffering and often put their family members in increased danger.
Imani is just one example. She was a Christian pastor in her home country who spoke out against the government. After her arrest and torture, she escaped and fled to the U.S. in the summer of 2012. More than four years later, she has not received a decision on her case. Meanwhile, her children in Africa continue to suffer. Due to the danger, they fled their home and are in hiding with relatives in another country that is also not safe. When we informed her that her case had been delayed once again, Imani thought only of her children. Some are not receiving adequate food or education, due to financial constraints and the fact that they are hiding in the countryside. She speaks to them only rarely. As we sat in the conference room, Imani told us how stressful this all was, how she feels sad and guilty all the time and has trouble sleeping.
Another client, Charles, is a torture survivor. Police in his home country kidnapped him in 2013 because of his work in an opposition political group. Government officials interrogated and tortured him for three days. They hung him from a bar, beat the soles of his feet, and dunked his head in freezing water. Charles escaped, and while in hiding, he secured a visa to the U.S. He applied for asylum in 2014 but he has not been interviewed or given any timetable for when he will get a decision on his case.
These backlogs plague the entire asylum system and immigration courts across the country. People come to the U.S. to escape life-threatening situations. They view our nation as a fierce defender of human rights and hope to find protection under our asylum laws. Unfortunately, due to underfunding and high demand, most asylum-seekers will wait years before obtaining a decision as to whether they will receive that protection.
Charles applied for asylum affirmatively, meaning he filed an application with the Houston Asylum Office. Prior to 2014, most asylum seekers applying in Houston received an interview in 4-6 weeks and a decision shortly after that. But, starting in 2014, due to a surge of asylum-seekers from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the Asylum Offices have had to shift resources to interview these new arrivals, mostly women and children, to determine if they have a credible fear of being harmed if returned to their home countries. This increased workload means it now takes far longer for asylum officers to process affirmative asylum claims. The 272 new officers who have been hired nationally since 2013 have been unable to put much of a dent into the delays. The Houston Asylum Office is currently processing applications filed in April and May of 2014 – and those dates haven’t budged for the last year and two months.
Meanwhile, Charles waits for the opportunity to have his case heard. If he loses, his case will be referred to an Immigration Judge, where he will face more delays, just as Imani has. In fighting for their lives, it seems as if there is no end in sight.
Written by Christine Mansour, AILA Member, Texas Chapter