USCIS is no longer scheduling affirmative asylum cases based on a "first in, first scheduled" basis. Now, cases that have been pending less than 21 days will be scheduled first, working backwards toward older cases. This new scheduling approach is purposefully aimed at deterring "individuals from using asylum backlogs solely to obtain employment authorization by filing frivolous, fraudulent, or otherwise non-meritorious asylum applications." By giving priority to recent filings, USCIS seeks to refer denied claims to the immigration court faster and cut off work authorization. The following is the new asylum interview scheduling system:
First priority: Applicants who were rescheduled for an interview, but the interview had to be rescheduled at the applicant's request or the needs of USCIS.
Second priority: Applicants who have been pending 21 days or less.
Third priority: All other pending affirmative asylum applicants will be scheduled for interviews starting with newer filings and working back toward older filings.
This new schedule does not, however, guarantee that interviews will occur in 21 days for all who file an asylum application from this point forward. USCIS has already expressed concern that "workload priorities related to border enforcement may affect our ability to schedule all new applications for an interview within 21 days." And, while USCIS's move may delay acquiring an employment authorization document (EAD), it does not prevent one from obtaining it.
No doubt, the current asylum backlog is a serious issue, with no clear answer in sight. Last year, the Asylum Division had a backlog approaching 270,000 asylum cases, more than double from two years before. And, USCIS has struggled over the years to figure how to prioritize scheduling. In fact, this new approach is similar to how asylum cases were scheduled prior to 2014. But, that resulted in a backlog of over 60,000 cases, which was a growing concern at the time. The 2014 asylum scheduling reversed priorities, handling the oldest cases first, but also exacerbated the backlog instead of alleviating it. By the end of FY2015, the backlog had already grown by 77 percent.
Moreover, backlogs do not end with the interview. If an affirmative asylum case is denied, it is referred to the immigration court where the applicant is able to tell his or her story once again before an immigration judge. However, this process can take years due to significant immigration court backlogs. At the end of the day, a vast number of asylum applicants can continue to expect to wait years for an interview and even longer for final disposition of their case.