In this week's feature, "Asylum Insanity," author Keegan Hamilton explores the convoluted process that asylum seekers go through when they show up at the U.S. border requesting sanctuary. As Hamilton reports this can sometimes mean long stretches of time in detention centers:
"It's really tragic," says Amelia Wilson, staff attorney for the American Friends Service Committee, a faith-based organization that aids asylum seekers. "They're fleeing persecution, and many of them have just fled institutions of incarceration in their home country. Through guile or luck or the right contacts, they manage to get out of their country. They come here, and they're promptly detained. They're shocked. They're not criminals. In fact, they're following the legal procedure the government has put in place for them to get protection."
Here in Missouri, asylum seekers face different challenges: We are not a border state, nor are we home to a large international travel hub. Here's the situation closer to home.
Local immigrants who find themselves facing deportation and are applying for a "defensive" asylum may be held in local jails, such as those in Montgomery, Scott and Mississippi counties, where sheriff's offices contract with the federal government for cell space.
Local immigration attorney Raymond Bolourtchi says the bulk of his "defensive" cases are Mexican immigrants who've been arrested and then apply for asylum to avoid returning to the drug wars over the border. He says that, in his experience, the Kansas City court that processes those cases does so expediently.
"Having dealt with immigration courts around the country and government prosecutors around the country, this is probably the most refreshing experience my office has had," says Bolourtchi. "They really have made every effort to be as transparent as possible which is not always a given in the immigration world."
But that doesn't mean the huge number of asylum seekers at the borders of Texas and California isn't affecting us locally. Several local immigration attorneys contacted by Riverfront Times say most of their cases are "affirmative" asylum cases. These are submitted by immigrants who entered the country legally with a student or work visa, for example, and are now looking for permanent asylum. But they're having a common problem these days.
"We have been waiting months for interviews," says local immigration lawyer Jim Hacking. "They've had to put all the resources, as far as the asylum officers go, to the borders. We're not getting interviews in St. Louis."
Affirmative applicants must have an interview with an asylum officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for their case to be adjudicated. But immigrants who simply show up at the border are also given "credible" or "reasonable fear" interviews. These take precedent over affirmative cases. According to an April 2 news release from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, these types of interview requests have skyrocketed, leaving affirmative cases lingering.
"There were 36,000 new credible fear cases in FY 2013. This was nearly three times the number in FY 2012 and nearly four times the number in FY 2011. Reasonable fear case numbers have also been way up: There were over 7,000 in FY 2013, compared to a few hundred in previous years," states the release. "There were 45,000 new affirmative filings in FY 2013 alone, which was the most received since 2003. This perfect storm of cases buried the asylum offices and they have yet to dig out."
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is currently struggling with a national 40,000 case backlog. In response, according to the AILA, 50 new asylum officers are being added in cities around the country, including New York, Houston and Los Angeles. None are scheduled for hire in the Midwest.