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Immigration backlog has a U.S. asylum-seeker feeling like he's 'imprisoned in a country'

Asylum-seekers spend years without any advancement on their cases, which ties up not just applicants but attorneys who can't take on new clients, further straining the system.
Immigrants seeking asylum wait to board a bus to a U.S. Border Patrol processing center, after crossing into Arizona from Mexico, on May 11, 2023.
Immigrants seeking asylum wait to board a bus to a U.S. Border Patrol processing center, after crossing into Arizona from Mexico last month.Mario Tama / Getty Images

MIAMI — Although he's free, the 26-year-old man sometimes feels like he's in a prison.

Five years ago, he went into exile in the U.S. after leaving his home country of Nicaragua, and he began a political asylum process that has not advanced. He's been told he has to keep details of his ordeal fresh since it's key to winning his asylum case, but since his application hasn't progressed, he said he can't move on — and can't heal from what he left behind.

“It’s like writing in a notebook everything that hurt you and all the things you don’t want to remember,” said the young man, whose name is being withheld for fear security reasons.

There are almost 1.6 million asylum-seekers waiting for an asylum hearing in the U.S., according to 2022 data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University in New York.

“It’s worrying, time is passing and you see that you haven’t done anything, that you’re not moving forward,” the asylum-seeker told Noticias Telemundo. “They have your hands tied.” 

Attorneys with private and pro bono practices are overloaded with unresolved cases for years, a problem that inhibits them from taking on new clients and harms those they already have, explained experts, who say that the immigration system has not been able to adapt to the current migratory flow.

“It’s hard for us to expand our services and take on more clients because we can’t close any of our cases,” said Rachel Kafele, director of programs for Oasis Legal Services, a nonprofit organization that offers free legal advice and support to immigrants from the LGBTQ community in California and parts of Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Oasis has a three-month waitlist for new cases because more than 800 of its clients haven't gotten an appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “We have clients who applied for asylum in 2014 and are still waiting for their interview," Kafele said. 

Stuck in an 'inefficient' system

“The United States (immigration) system was designed in 1965 and has not been reformed since then,” Raquel Aldana, lawyer and law professor at the University of California, Davis, told Noticias Telemundo.

“We talk about asylum and how the system is overwhelmed, but each year we barely grant 20,000 to 25,000 asylum claims to people. ... That is nothing,” Aldana said. “Perhaps the problem is not the migratory flow. It is that the law itself does not respond to the reality.”

“Everything will continue to get worse as long as there is no immigration reform, one that really changes the entire system,” Tahimí Rengifo, an immigration attorney who practices in Miami, said. “(The system) is designed for the needs of that time, not for the current time and current situations.”

According to TRAC, current figures represent the highest total number of pending asylum applications on record.

According to Amy Grenier, policy and practice adviser for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the situation has been exacerbated by a combination of factors and bureaucratic inefficiencies as well as previous policies under the Trump administration — including "incentivizing unnecessary (application) denials and a hiring freeze" of personnel — as well as delays dragged on since the pandemic, when offices and courts closed for several months.

“Immigration agencies are really bad at communicating and coordinating,” Grenier said. Procedures that should be simple, she said, such as a change of address, are cumbersome as they have to be carried out separately in each instance.

The average wait time for a case before an immigration court is 1,572 days — that is, 4.3 years — from the time the process reaches the court and until it receives a hearing, TRAC detailed.

“I think it’s hard for immigration attorneys to have to prepare a case multiple times,” Grenier said, explaining attorneys first have to present the asylum application, then prepare for a hearing — which is often canceled and rescheduled at the last minute — and finally prepare again when a new date is assigned. 

“It is also hard for the asylum-seeker; who wants to live with this uncertainty for years?” she said.

Priority for newcomers, a setback for others

The measure known as Last In, First Out, applied by the Trump administration and which is still in force, establishes that those who have just entered the country will have priority to be heard, something that doesn't benefit newcomers or those who have been waiting for years.

It was implemented amid the rise of migrants coming to the U.S. seeking asylum, and the practice allows the government to deport people more quickly if they're deemed ineligible for asylum.

Appointments for a hearing are granted so quickly that immigrants have very little time to get evidence or a lawyer to represent them, according to Rengifo. “They don’t have enough time and the lawyer doesn’t have any control” over when an appointment is scheduled, she said.

Grenier said attorneys are declining to take cases for two reasons, “because the time frame is too fast, such as in expedited removal, and because it’s too slow in immigration court."

Lorena Duarte, an immigration lawyer in Miami, said that since she founded her firm almost three years ago, “all my cases have been of people who have recently arrived and those cases have moved faster. I have certain cases that want to be adjudicated after one year or two years.”

She has also answered queries from people who came to the country with a visa and “have been waiting five, six, seven years (for an appointment) and the only solution is to sue the government in federal court, but many people don’t want to do that,” she said.

While this is an outlet for solid asylum cases that have plenty of evidence, “they are going to give you the interview, but under what circumstances? Now you are the person who sued them federally; it's a double-edged sword,” Rengifo said.

According to the Nicaraguan still waiting to have his asylum request processed, he's seen friends, relatives and acquaintances arrive after him and have their cases advance while he remains stuck in a migratory limbo.

“I am happy for them because they did not have to suffer what one suffers, the uncertainty, but the truth must be told — it is injustice due to the system,” he said.

The asylum-seeker said that while he fled to come to the U.S. to live in peace, that's not the case. Although he has a work permit and a Social Security number, he lives in uncertainty about his immigration status. “You are imprisoned in a country. ... It doesn’t really help you heal," the young Nicaraguan said.

His “asylum-seeker” status, which is not the same as someone with asylum, also limits his access to public loans to continue studying, for example.

With the passage of time, another possibility lurks: that the circumstances in the applicant’s country of origin change and “what is a judge going to say to you? 'The evil that you experienced, what you lived through, has already changed, so you can return to your country now,' and what happens? You lost years trying to build your life in the United States, when in reality they are going to make you return,” the Nicaraguan said.

Many immigrants complete their paperwork without the advice of a lawyer. One in 10 asylum-seekers were unrepresented in cases resolved in fiscal year 2022, and among pending asylum cases, “one in five (21%) are registered as unrepresented,” according to TRAC.

While there's a need for attorneys, it's hard for immigrants to get them, Grenier said, even though in asylum cases there's no equivalent to a public defender paid by the state, as there is in criminal cases.

Yet “for someone seeking asylum and facing death if returned to their country, the stakes are just as high,” Kafele said.

An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.