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Opinion No one should have to wait years for the U.S. to consider their asylum claim

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Nov. 16. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Andrea Barron is the advocacy program manager at the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, based in D.C.

Genet Lire Dobamo was a 17-year-old elite sprinter with the Ethiopian national team when she defected at Dulles International Airport in 2014, terrified of returning to her native Ethiopia. She held Ethiopia’s national title for the 400-meter race and had an excellent chance of representing her country in the 2016 Olympics. But Dobamo had been severely beaten by police for opposing Ethiopia’s one-party dictatorship and was frightened of being tortured again or even killed if she returned home.

She applied for asylum in March 2015 and was featured in a Post story on elite Ethiopian runners seeking asylum in the United States. The Post reporter said the asylum process can take “months, sometimes more than a year.” Six years later, Dobamo has still not been interviewed by an asylum officer at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Mohamed Abdelsatar was an accountant in Egypt and a human rights activist when he was kidnapped by Egypt’s national security police in 2015 and imprisoned for almost a year. His “crime”: criticizing the military regime on social media. Abdelsatar was blindfolded, handcuffed and tortured with an electric shock device and prevented from speaking to his family or a lawyer.

Abdelsatar traveled to the United States in 2017 and applied for asylum. He has been waiting more than four years for an interview with USCIS. He has nightmares about being sent back to Egypt. Regime supporters still threaten him on social media. He is angry that Egyptians who applied for asylum in 2021 have already been interviewed. “It’s so unfair,” he says. “People like me who applied in 2017, we should be interviewed before those who applied after us.”

Read a letter to the editor responding to this op-ed.

Lewis Kunze is a gay man and family therapist from Zimbabwe who was persecuted because of his sexual orientation and his leadership in the only organization in Zimbabwe that serves the LGBT community. He suffers from a major depressive disorder because of the abuse he experienced in Zimbabwe, made worse by waiting more than six years for his asylum interview. Kunze wonders: “What will come first, my asylum interview or my death certificate?”

Like many torture survivors, Dobamo, Abdelsatar and Kunze are caught in the affirmative asylum backlog, with more than 400,000 pending cases. Affirmative asylum seekers enter the United States legally with visas, then apply for asylum based on what the Immigration and Nationality Act describes as a “well-founded fear of persecution” on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a “particular social group,” such as the LGBT community.

Most of the survivors I work with were tortured by repressive governments because they condemned their governments for corruption, human rights abuses or sham elections, or because of their sexual orientation. After filing for asylum, they expected to be interviewed in one or two years at the most. Instead, they have been waiting four, five or even six years with no end in sight.

Already traumatized by torture and persecution at home, these asylum applicants must endure long separation from their families and prolonged uncertainty about their status. The wait can be unbearable. What makes their plight even worse is that USCIS has been interviewing people who applied in 2020 and 2021 before those who applied in 2015, 2016 or 2017. These earlier applicants are simply asking for a chance to present their cases.

President Biden promised a “fair, orderly and humane immigration system.” But Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has continued the same unfair, inefficient and inhumane system of prioritizing interviews as the Trump administration. Torture survivors are sent to the back of the line in the interview queue; USCIS considers them “low priority.”

Until recently, it seemed as if Congress and the Biden administration had forgotten about torture survivors and other affirmative asylum applicants. But then, on Sept. 9, 40 House members recognized their plight in a letter to Mayorkas and USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou.

Their letter urges USCIS to address the affirmative asylum backlog by assigning a portion of asylum officers to interview asylum applicants who have been waiting five or more years for their interviews. This practical solution would not require any legislation or cost additional funds. Unfortunately, two months have passed and Mayorkas still has not responded to the 40 representatives.

Biden faces enormous challenges on the southern border, and it is understandable that many asylum officers have been assigned to interview migrants there. But his administration should not forget about the claims of torture survivors who fled persecution and believed in America, just like the son of refugees who now leads the department in charge of their fate.