Seeking Asylum: The Long Wait for Freedom

In American media, many immigrants tend to be grouped together in broad swathes with little distinction among different categories.  Buffalo’s refugee population has rightly received much attention for their contributions to the community, but the plight of asylum seekers in particular—another group who seek protection from persecution—is greatly overlooked.

It’s no wonder that many fail to realize the tremendous obstacles that asylum seekers face at a systemic level.  Amongst the biggest hurdles these individuals face is the seemingly endless waiting they endure until their asylum cases are decided upon.

Chelsey Kelso—a staff attorney at Journey’s End Refugee Services—says that for her clients applying for asylum affirmatively in Buffalo, cases can take anywhere from two to four years to process.  Her colleague, staff attorney Jill Nowak, says that her defensive asylum cases—processed in the immigration courts—are taking 2-3 years.  Even after years of waiting, individuals are not even guaranteed  protection.

Kelso believes the problem stems from a lack of resources: “The perception I get from USCIS offices is that they are understaffed. They just don’t have enough U.S. asylum officers.”

However, the long wait can take a heavy emotional toll on those often fleeing from atrocities.  “Emotionally it’s a roller coaster,” states Sister Beth Niederpruem, a social worker at Vive. Vive is an asylum seeking shelter on Buffalo’s east side.

“It’s just constantly waiting.  Going through first of all getting here, thinking that you’re going to be able to process quickly and then realizing it’s a process and it’s going to take at least two years, and that’s at the short end,” she explains.

According to Niederpruem, many of Vive’s clients do not anticipate the long wait when they arrive.  “They have no clue,” she says“Someone’s coming after you, you’re trying to get out of the country, you get on the airplane, and then you’re at a dead stop.  It’s like another trauma.”

For some, the obstacle of waiting is difficult both because of the uncertainty of the outcome, but also especially because of family members waiting back home.  One man from an African country—who requested anonymity—applied for asylum after undergoing a conflict resolution seminar in the U.S., which inadvertently led to his being targeted by government officials in his home country.  He was unable to return and applied for asylum here.

“You’re just waiting in [the U.S.] and you don’t even know if they’re going to say yes or no [to your asylum claim].  The time that you’ve waited can never be paid back,” he lamented.

“The impression I get is that they feel I should be grateful for being safe, but I have a family…and I’m here and they’re there.  I end up feeling like I’m a coward.  I’m in a safe place, and I leave them.  That’s something that’s emotionally draining.”

This scenario is a reality for many who flee, but are unable to bring their own family members for some time.  Kelso claims that in her experience, I-730 petitions—which are applications used to bring family members from abroad—can take anywhere from nine months to two years to process.  And this process can only begin after an individual wins their asylum case.

If someone applies for asylum affirmatively—in other words applying with the government branch known as  United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—and loses, their case is then referred to the immigration courts, in which an immigration judge then decides again if someone may obtain asylum.

Cases in the courts can take 2-3 years, so “you could be looking at 10 years before you can bring your family members over,” claims Kelso.  “It can quickly spiral.”

Ironically, the length of time asylum seekers must wait can also impact the outcome of their asylum case.  For all asylum cases, credibility is the primary factor that is assessed when determining a case.

These individuals  who experience  post traumatic stress disorder, anxieties, or depression—highly prevalent given the conditions faced in home countries—can also experience severe memory loss as a result. This in addition to long processing times can cause clients to forget details and provide testimony that is inconsistent with information included on the initial application.  This can cause the officers to question credibility and create greater risk of denial.

Kelsey perceives this as unfair: “There should be some concession made that you’re not expected to remember what color the walls were in an interrogation room four years removed, because I don’t even remember things that truly happened to me; I don’t remember the color of the walls in a room four years after it occurred.”

However, there may be hope for quicker processing times, at least in the Buffalo courts.  Wait times have been cut with the addition of a new immigration judge, Denise C. Hokul.  She was appointed last January, and now accompanies Philip J. Montonte, who is also expected to step down this June.

If he is replaced immediately, Nowak claims, “things should move swiftly.”  Nonetheless, it seems there is still much to do to ensure those in need are able to more quickly obtain decisions on their cases

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