Two months ago, an Ethiopian woman seeking asylum in the United States went to her interview with an American official who would decide her fate. She was expecting it to be tough. But the officer asked her a series of questions her attorney had never heard before.
Like many Ethiopian women, this one survived female genital mutilation when she was 7 years old—a dangerous and medically unnecessary practice deplored by human rights groups around the world.
And the asylum officer grilled her about it.
“Tell me where they cut you,” the officer asked, according to the woman’s lawyer, Alan Parra. “What did they use? Did it hurt? What did they cut specifically? Did they use anesthesia?”
The woman broke down crying.
This type of exchange with officers—lengthy, and filled with personal questions—is increasingly common among people seeking asylum in the United States, according to a host of immigration attorneys who spoke with The Daily Beast.
Officials with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said there haven’t been any formal changes in policy or practice on interviews. But the lawyers who help their clients through these interviews insisted that the process has gotten significantly longer and harder. On top of that, the lawyer said, officers are losing their clients’ paperwork.
They have a term for it: extreme vetting.
On the campaign trail, Trump criticized refugees seeking shelter in the U.S. and said Syrian refugees could be “one of the great Trojan horses.” Now that he’s president, his asylum officers are tougher than ever.
“The government is now approaching these cases with a view of finding reasons to deny these cases,” said Paul O’Dwyer, a New York immigration attorney who specializes in helping LGBT people get asylum.
The asylum process was never easy. But lawyers said the Trump administration appears to have made it harder than ever for people to get asylum. Most of the attorneys who spoke with The Daily Beast said they thought the changes were a move in the wrong direction, though one said he welcomes the extra scrutiny.
And it follows a change in the way the asylum process works. To get asylum in the United States, an asylum-seeker has to go through an interview process. Previously, these interviews were scheduled in the order people applied for asylum—first come, first served. But several months ago, the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced a flip: The people who applied for asylum most recently would be the first to have their interviews scheduled.
Reached for comment for this story, a USCIS spokesperson said this is the only recent change.
“In congressional testimony, USCIS Director Francis L. Cissna indicated that reducing the backlog of asylum applicants—a population that already resides in the United States—is an agency priority,” said USCIS spokesperson Carter Langston. “He also said that delays in the timely processing of asylum applications are detrimental to legitimate asylum seekers and that lingering backlogs can be exploited. We returned to a processing method that effectively reduced a larger backlog in 1995. USCIS remains committed to a fair, efficient and legal process that reduces the asylum backlog and seeks to ensure we all have confidence in our immigration system.”
That change seems to have precipitated what many lawyers described as chaos. Before their interviews, asylum-seekers and their lawyers turn over evidence to USCIS showing that they would be in danger if they had to return to their home countries. This evidence can include police reports, photos, documentation of threats, and other proof that the asylum-seekers do, in fact, need asylum.
According to numerous attorneys, USCIS has been losing this paperwork.
Jason Dzubow, an immigration attorney based in Northern Virginia who specializes in asylum cases, told The Daily Beast that the last four times he’s gone with a client for an asylum interview, the client’s documentation—which he turned in prior to the questioning—had been mysteriously lost.
“I don’t know how often it happens, but I know I’m zero for four in the last four interviews,” Dzubow said. “Not a good success rate. Whether that will affect the outcome, I don’t know.
“Maybe they’re permanently lost or they’re just temporarily lost, I don’t know,” he added. “But this is an epidemic.”
Those documents are important; they’re a key part of how many asylum-seekers make the case for staying in the United States. If the asylum officers questioning them don’t have the documents, then a significant part of the asylum-seeker’s case is just missing.
Sui Chung, the president of the South Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says she and her South Florida colleagues have faced this problem numerous times.
“It just seems a little chaotic,” she said.
And when things don’t seem chaotic, it’s because lawyers get the silent treatment from USCIS. Dree Collopy, an attorney based in Northern Virginia, said one of her clients—an Ethiopian woman—recently got an expedited asylum interview because her family members back in Ethiopia were in danger. After the interview, though, nine months passed without them getting word on whether the woman would get asylum.
“Instead of issuing a decision, they scheduled her for a second interview,” Collopy said.
The woman recently went in for Interview Number Two. They still haven’t heard whether she’ll get asylum.
Michael Wildes, a New York attorney, said his clients have also been facing lengthier interviews and more probing questions. But he added that he thinks this is a positive change.
“It’s really going to ferret out the fraud and it’s really the right way to handle asylum,” he said. “I’m pleased that these cases take that amount of time because it shows that the government is generally trying to discern somebody’s eligibility and the veracity of the claim itself.”
Lawyers also said interviewers seem to be pushing for information about whether migrants paid smugglers to bring them into the United States (which wouldn’t necessarily keep them from getting asylum) and whether they support terrorists (which would).
Dzubow said his clients get grilled about whether they’ve ever been through a checkpoint.
“If you go through a non-government checkpoint that’s operated by terrorists, let’s say an ISIS checkpoint or an al Qaeda checkpoint, they’ll say, ‘Everyone who passes through here pays a dollar,’ and you pay a dollar,” Dzubow said. “That will bar you from asylum because you paid money to a terrorist group.”
He doesn’t have any clients who paid the dollar, he added.
“It’s very rare they would have passed through a checkpoint,” he said. “Those people are in refugee camps or dead.”
David Leopold, an immigration attorney based in Ohio, said his Syrian clients have also been grilled about their personal finances, likely as part of efforts to determine if they gave money to terrorists.
“I think the most troubling thing with those asylum cases is they’re just not deciding them,” he added.
One of his Syrian clients went in for an interview a year ago and was told there would be an answer on his asylum case in two weeks. He still hasn’t heard back.