Updated on May 5, 2021.
Burcu signed her asylum application and sent it to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. She had fled from her native country of Turkey in fear of becoming a political prisoner and hoped to start a new life in the U.S. Unfortunately, due to the cuts on funding from immigration services and the coronavirus pandemic, there was a backlog of cases, and Burcu — her name is altered to protect her identity from retribution — was left in uncertainty.
Last March, immigration courts temporarily shut down, increasing wait times for thousands of applicants. Burcu, a 22-year-old university student living in Suffolk County, N.Y. — struggled to make ends meet and move on with her life. Her citizenship status makes steady employment difficult.
“Many of the asylum offices have been temporarily closed and even after President Joe Biden was elected, offices are conducting only a couple of interviews per day,” Burcu said. “I am barely getting by with my savings and loans as I can’t work because of these restrictions.”
In May 2020, Congress had cut $1.2 billion in emergency funding from immigration services — part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — leading to the backlog of cases. The initial wait time for a work permit after applying for asylum in the U.S. was up to 180 days. Applicants, like Burcu, are unsure of the current wait time.
“The administration also issued various regulations designed to dramatically limit asylum, withholding, and CAT, and to restrict employment authorization for individuals seeking these forms of relief,” Hasan Shafiqullah, a lawyer who heads the Immigration Law Unit at The Legal Aid Society, said.
U.S. immigration data shows that 118,719 employment-based cases were pending between July 1 and September 30, 2020. The policies that former President Donald Trump had imposed nearly halted the processing of asylum cases, leaving applicants in the dark about what their next step would be.
“The pandemic was a blow to the immigration process, but Trump’s policies just made it a nightmare,” Burcu said. “It has been over a year, and I still have not received my work permit, and I don’t know the exact date I will be receiving an authorization. I’m constantly taking out loans, and the uncertainty is mentally draining.”
Foreign offices overwhelmed with work — or shutdown completely — have exacerbated the domestic backlog of processing of work permits, too. The Trump administration closed during its four years at least over 15 international-based immigration offices, a move that further increases the backlog in applications to federal immigration services, according to advocacy groups that help immigrants make asylum claims.
Applicants at the southern border grab national headlines. They are unable to reunite with their families or leave refugee camps. Delays of this portion have created financial, employment, and housing insecurity, among other issues, for immigrants or those who wanted to apply for immediate refuge across the U.S.
“It’s been a sea change in terms of access to asylum and a very dangerous precedent to establish,” Brian Griffey, a regional research advisor for Amnesty International, said.
In April 2020, Trump directed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to institute the expulsion of all individuals encountered at the border under Title 42. This section of the U.S. Code states that any single adult or family from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador were immediately turned around and sent back to Mexico. Under this section, many unaccompanied children have been taken into custody, held for days or weeks, and late deported to their home country.
Griffey said that under Title 42, over 330,000 people were expelled from the U.S., through being denied their right to seek asylum, including over 13,000 unaccompanied children and the number continues to rise.
In March, Biden wanted to overhaul the nation’s broken immigration and asylum system, but that shift in policy is long overdue for asylum seekers, said Shailja Sharma, head of the refugee and forced migration study at DePaul University.
“Biden wanted to reverse Trump’s policies calling what he did inhumane, not just reverse some of his policies, but to make them more generous and more welcoming, as part of immigration reform,” Sharma said.
The Biden administration has started to take steps to address immigration as an immediate priority. They plan to undo Trump-era controversial measures, including restricted travel to Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen, limits on green cards, and reduced funding for federal immigration services, which Biden said is the most detrimental.
“Unfortunately, the last administration eliminated that funding — did not engage in it, did not use it — even though there was over $700 million to help get this done,” Biden said while laying out the administration’s immigration agenda on March 25. “We’re reinstituting that program. And there are — as I said, there are many factors as to why people leave in the first place.”
Biden previously issued three executive orders on legal immigration in February to address asylum seekers at the Mexico border and reunifying families.
“The Biden administration has struck the right tone of saying that it supports respecting and protecting the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers,” Griffey said. “In so doing, it has indicated that it is rescinding many of the human rights-violating policies of the Trump administration in relation to migrant protection protocols.”
Biden has promised to undo several of Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies but continues to use one COVID-19-era policy that is causing the majority of migrants to be turned away at the border: Title 42.
“They [the Biden administration] have not lifted that dangerous CDC order under Title 42 forcing people back to the countries of origin with complete denial of their requests for protection,” Griffey said.
Many asylum seekers — Burcu included — and immigration lawyers believe that Biden had promised more but is falling short in his promises.
“The Biden administration should reverse the harmful Attorney General opinions and BIA decisions, withdraw the harmful regulations, discontinue the use of LIFO scheduling, replace BIA members who were chosen for their anti-immigrant track records, and otherwise reaffirm the US’s commitment to abide by its international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the related 1967 Protocol,” Shafiqullah said.
Biden’s order to limit admissions on April 16 was a blow to advocacy groups and asylum seekers and received swift criticism. Biden had promised in February to increase the cap to 62,500. The Biden administration announced on May 3, that they will once again raise the refugee cap to 62,500 people this fiscal year, the White House confirmed.
Biden said it was doubtful the United States would be able to welcome all 62,500 refugees by the end of the current fiscal year due to budget and staffing cuts that agencies suffered during the Trump administration.
“The America that I was expecting and dreaming of seems like just a dream now,” Burcu said. “I feel like nothing seems to be changing and I’m just stuck in my spot waiting for the day a politician is actually going to take action and fix this system.”