Imagine coming to the United States to seek asylum and having to wait four years just for an interview to decide whether you get to move forward with your claim. Four years. In most jurisdictions, asylum applicants are having to do just that: wait years for an interview, when before 2013, asylum applicants were able to obtain a decision on their petitions typically within four months. If U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) refers asylees’ cases to immigration court, their wait time is likely to extend for an additional two to three years. In the Los Angeles asylum office alone, there may be as many as 30,000 cases in the backlog. Nationally, close to 100,000 cases may be awaiting USCIS adjudications.
Once USCIS grants asylum status, if the immediate family of the asylee is overseas, he/she may file a petition so that the family may follow and join him/her in the United States. Currently this process may take up to six months. In theory then, it may take up to eight years for a separated family to be reunified. For gay applicants, the situation is even worse.
Most countries in the world do not have marriage equality. In many countries, homosexuality is still a crime, often punishable by imprisonment or even death. Persecution of LGBT communities is the norm in many countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa. At the same time, obtaining a visa to immigrate to the United States from these countries is often a monumental, if not an impossible, task. So if one partner in a gay family is lucky enough to get a visa to the country, and then seek U.S. protection through filing an asylum application, his/her other half has an even longer wait than the estimated eight years for a heterosexual couple.
Here is how the timing plays out: since most LGBT partners worldwide are not married, they are not considered a family under our immigration laws and thus, immigration benefits are not available to them. A gay asylee then would have to wait a year to apply for residency and then another four years to qualify for U.S. citizenship. When you add on roughly 12 months processing time, you’re looking at a total of six years in addition to the eight discussed above before the family may be back together again. Of course, this is only if we assume that during this time, the couple manages to get married in a jurisdiction which recognizes marriage equality.
During these 14+ years, the family member(s) left behind will most probably be living under very harsh conditions, in hostile countries with little or no due process. Their safety and wellbeing is far from guaranteed.
There are two possible solutions to this crisis. The Department of Homeland Security may either provide additional funding for the hiring of asylum officers so the backlog is eliminated, or it may ease the requirements to obtain humanitarian paroles for LGBT families. Anything short of either approach contradicts our cherished American values and is simply inhumane.
Written by Ally Bolour, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee