Boston’s asylum office has the second-lowest acceptance rate of any office in the country and granted asylum to just 11% of its applicants in 2021, according to a report by aid organizations Maine lawyer handling immigration cases and advocating for reform.
The report says the office that serves asylum seekers in and around Maine is plagued by bias and burnout, and that its low grant rate is “driven by a culture of suspicion” towards asylum seekers.
The process of seeking asylum in the United States begins with an application to United States Citizen and Immigration Services. Candidates must prove that they are fleeing a country in which they have already been persecuted or were at risk of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion .
Applications first go through asylum offices, which can either grant asylum upfront or refer an application to an immigration court for a judge to consider.
Jennifer Bailey, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and one of the report’s authors, said nearly all asylum seekers she works with eventually gain asylum through immigration court, after failing to obtain asylum at the Boston Asylum Office. But the court process can take years, and while they wait, applicants can’t access federal student aid, social services or educational opportunities. Worse still, they spend this time away from their family, which may still be in danger.
“It’s not uncommon for people (families) left at home to die while they wait or get lost in the violence,” Bailey said.
Collaboration with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project on the report has been the University of Maine Law School Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, the ACLU of Maine, and a guest speaker at the Amherst College in Massachusetts who spent eight years waiting for a decision from the Boston Asylum Office and was finally denied in May 2021. Today he and his family live in Canada.
In its first five years, the Boston office — which opened in 2015 and processes about 5,600 applications a year — granted about 15% of its asylum claims on average, the report said. Meanwhile, offices in San Francisco and New Orleans were accepting asylum applications at rates more than three times higher. Nationally, the acceptance rate from 2015 to 2020 was 28%, the report said.
The report acknowledges that asylum officers who approve or refer cases to court face a “complex and essential” list of responsibilities. Being overworked and having less time to review cases often leads asylum officers to send more referrals to immigration court, some former officers cited in the report said.
Meanwhile, supervisory officers play an “outsized” role in the asylum process, according to the report. If an asylum officer recommends granting asylum and the supervisor disagrees, the officer could face retaliation in the form of extra work or a negative performance review, says The report.
The report’s authors say their research “strongly suggests” that the Boston Asylum Office does not review applications from a neutral perspective, “but rather presumes that they must be fraudulent or pose a threat to Security”. Of the 21 training courses for asylum officers mentioned in the report, 14 focused on detecting fraud. Former officers told the report’s authors that constantly hearing concerns about fraud and credibility made them think those issues were more prevalent than they were.
“They tell their story, which no matter what, can involve this unimaginable trauma of torture and abuse or sexual abuse or death,” Bailey said of the asylum seekers. “Put yourself in this position and imagine how difficult it is to talk about the worst thing that has ever happened to you in your life, and to have this officer – who has the power to help you and your family – to say “No, I don’t” I don’t believe you.
According to the report, prejudice and skepticism within the office extend to some countries. Boston’s asylum office has granted just 4% of asylum claims from the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2015 to 2020, even though the United States has acknowledged significant human rights abuses there. country, including unlawful killings and torture, the report says. The office only granted 2% of its applications from Angola, another country where abuses are known.
The Newark Asylum Office in New Jersey, which also serves part of New England, has granted asylum to 17% of its claimants from Angola and 33% of its claimants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. .
English-speaking applicants are nearly twice as likely to be granted asylum as non-English speakers, who are referred to immigration court 80% of the time, the report says. Asylum seekers who speak English are referred to immigration court just under 60% of the time.
The report recommends giving asylum officers more time to thoroughly review each asylum claim and issue a fair response. She also suggests providing them with ongoing training to detect and limit implicit biases.
Paula Grenier, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Office of Citizen and Immigration Services in Boston, did not respond to a request for discussion about the Boston asylum office’s low grant rate compared to other offices and the disparities in its acceptance rates compared to asylum seekers. native country.
THE OFFICE BLAMES THE PANDEMIC
But Boston Asylum Office Director Meghann Boyle told the report’s authors in February that the low approval rates and disparities were the result of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and a number large number of filings by ineligible applicants – the report’s authors said they found insufficient and inaccurate.
The groups behind the report are holding a virtual press conference Wednesday at 11 a.m. to discuss their findings.
Much of the data listed in the report was first requested in 2019 by the ACLU of Maine and other report authors, who ended up filing a lawsuit in federal court the following year as the agency had still not responded. Eventually, they received over 6,000 pages of “heavily redacted” information and a five-year database of asylum claims data.
Camrin Rivera, a third-year law student who helped write the report and who also works with asylum seekers through the Law School’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic University of Maine, said the school received in response to its 2019 records. The application is incomplete.
“We’ve done a lot to get the data we have, but it’s just opening the door,” Rivera said. “There’s probably a lot more going on that we haven’t been able to see.”