Basileus Zeno simply wants an answer. The Syrian academic has been waiting nearly two years to be interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security about his application for asylum, but no word has come.
“They don’t give you any details,” he said, as if “your whole life should be pending.”
Zeno was pursuing his PhD in archaeology in Damascus in 2012 when fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and opposition groups intensified around the Syrian capital. He left to enroll in a master’s program at Ohio University, and as Syria continued to disintegrate, he decided that returning home was not an option.
Zeno’s articles critical of the Assad regime and Islamist groups seeking to topple it have brought death threats, he said, adding that militants have killed several members of his family.
Zeno is a drop in the sea of more than 4 million people who have fled a war in Syria that has claimed about a quarter of a million lives since March 2011. A total of 1,582 Syrians filed new cases for asylum in the United States in fiscal 2014, and 633 did so in the first half of fiscal 2015, according to the most recent data from DHS.
The Syrian applicants have entered an American asylum system that legal experts say is under-resourced and overwhelmed by a humanitarian crisis in Central America.
“The immigration courts in some locales have become so backlogged that they’re not even able to enter new cases” into the system, said Anwen Hughes, deputy legal director at Human Rights First, an advocacy group that offers pro bono legal representation to asylum-seekers. “There are a lot of victims of very severe trauma in this population” of Syrians, she said, and not having status “prolongs their sense of insecurity.”
Once a case has been pending for 150 days, the applicant is eligible to apply for work authorization, as Zeno did recently, he said, because his scholarship funding had run out. He is still waiting to hear back on his work status.
Nadeen Aljijakli, a Cleveland-based Syrian American lawyer, says getting interviews for her dozens of Syrian clients has been hit or miss. “If we don’t get an interview within six weeks, that means it’s probably gone to the black hole,” she said.
There are two ways of gaining asylum in the United States: through an “affirmative” process, in which one applies within a year of arriving in the country; or a “defensive” option, when one is in the process of being deported. For the affirmative route that Zeno took, obtaining an interview before an officer in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a DHS agency, is a key hurdle in moving a case along, and it is supposed to occur within 45 days of a case being filed.
Yet immigration lawyers say it is not unusual for those who have applied for asylum within the last two years to wait a year or more for an interview. Lawyers trace the backlog in asylum cases to a surge in applications from Central America in fiscal 2013. More than 36,000 migrants, mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, requested asylum at the southwestern U.S. border that year, almost triple the 2012 figure.
“The humanitarian situation on the southern border has led USCIS to reallocate resources to address the influx of migrants attempting to cross into the United States unlawfully,” said Daniel Cosgrove, a spokesman for the agency. “This has caused an increase in our backlog of asylum cases.”
USCIS has responded to the flood of applications by hiring 175 officers for its eight asylum offices around the country, according to a notice on the agency’s Web site.
But those officers need to be trained and assigned, which takes time.
For immigration lawyers such as Jason Dzubow, who said he has handled about 50 asylum cases from Syria in recent years, that can’t happen soon enough. Despite the new hires, he said, “we in the field are not seeing our cases that have been waiting and waiting and waiting being scheduled for interviews.”
Dree Collopy, a Washington-based lawyer who chairs a committee on asylum and refugees at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, was skeptical that the new staff members will be able to make a significant difference. “I don’t know that the amount of officers that they’ve hired is enough to really address the backlog in a meaningful way,” she said.
Meanwhile, Syrian applicants are in legal limbo. Zeno said his case hasn’t budged since he applied for asylum in July 2013.
Farah Nasif is playing a similar waiting game. Islamic State militants raided her home town of Deir al-Zour, in eastern Syria, where Nasif said she had worked on a U.S.-funded program to reopen schools closed by another group of Islamists. The program shut down last summer as the Islamic State’s control of the area grew. In November, she applied for asylum in the United States.
While waiting for that verdict, Nasif applied for Temporary Protected Status, which DHS redesignated for Syrian nationals in January. Protected status would allow her to have a Social Security number. Without a valid passport or a driver’s license, Nasif said she is struggling to establish an identity in the United States.
“I’m not illegal, but they deal with you like [an] illegal,” she said. Nasif, who has worked as a journalist in Syria and as a fellow at a U.S. think tank, is awaiting word on her applications for both protected status and asylum.
According to USCIS data, Syrians have a high approval rate for asylum — about 80 percent in fiscal 2013 and 2014.
But the frequently long wait for a verdict takes a toll, immigration lawyers say.
“Without anything, you are not able to study, you are not able to travel . . . and you are just waiting,” Nasif said. It is, she said, “like you are in a prison.”