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Maine legal groups say bias, 'culture of suspicion' at Boston asylum office hurt their clients

A photo of one of the vacation rental properties in Old Orchard Beach that is serving as emergency housing for asylum-seeking families this year.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
The late afternoon sun glints through the porch of one of the vacation rental properties in Old Orchard Beach that is serving as emergency housing for asylum-seeking families this year. A new report from several Maine immigrant advocacy groups say the Boston Asylum Office - whose jurisdiction includes Maine - displays bias and undue suspicion when evaluating asylum cases.

A new report from a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups finds that federal immigration officials in Boston approve asylum cases at a rate far below the national average. The findings were released today by the University of Maine School Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, the ACLU of Maine, and others. It concludes that the low approval rate is based in part on a culture of suspicion within the Boston office, reveals biases against individuals from certain countries, and is a violation of their clients rights.

Jennifer Bailey, of the Immigration Legal Advocacy, is one of the authors of the report.

Note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Ari Snider: Hi, Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. So as you state in the report, between 2015 and 2020, the Boston asylum office granted on average 15% of asylum cases, that's only about half the national rate. What are some of the factors that you believe contributed to this low rate of approval?

Jennifer Bailey: That's precisely the question we were trying to get at, when we made the Freedom of Information Act request to get records from the Boston asylum office. We had seen a precipitous decline in approvals of the cases we brought before the office. And we could not understand why. We found that there's a lot of pressure on the asylum officers to decide cases in a way that pleases the supervisory officer. So there's an undue and outsized influence for the supervisory officers. There are a lot of time constraints and too much pressure on the asylum officers to get through these cases two a day, four days a week with one day to write it up. Another reason that we think referral rates [to immigration courts] have increased is that asylum officers are putting an improper amount of weight on the [the questions of] credibility and fraud. In the FOIA request, we did receive training materials that show that the officers get a lot of training on fraud and credibility and how to assess credibility. And so it's, as far as we can tell, really tainting their initial approach to the clients and instead of a non adversarial, neutral setting, it's approaching each case with an intent to ferret out the lie.

So the report also states that immigration officials are violating the due process rights of asylum seekers, could you explain a little bit what you mean by that?

If you think of due process as the right to be heard, to have your case adjudicated by the asylum office in a non adversarial, neutral environment, where you are then given the opportunity to show that you do qualify as a refugee, that you have suffered persecution, or will suffer persecution based on one of the protected grounds in your country of origin, that your life or freedom would be threatened - that's what the interview should be about. In reality, they end up being approached from the beginning as trying to ferret out what's not true. And as soon as there's three inconsistencies, we find it gets referred to the judge. The due process comes in if there is a refugee at the center of this, then our obligation is to protect them from return to a place that they will be in danger. And that's what we should be doing. That's the actual implementation of our laws and policies and regulations. And that's what the asylum office is not doing.

A photo of a table which shows the Boston office grants 15.5 percent of applicants their asylum request.
Lives In Limbo Report/Screenshot
Maine Public
A table included in the report shows the average rate at which asylum offices across the country granted asylum cases between January 2016 and September 2019.

So when the Boston asylum office refers one of your clients to immigration court, instead of granting them asylum, how long would that person usually have to wait before their case is resolved? And what is the impact of that wait time?

So it used to be that there would be a decision within a year or two. And a combination of just a huge explosive upsurge in the number of asylum cases pending in immigration court - over 1.6 million nationally, which is the highest ever - means that there are huge backlogs in court. Now, it may be [that] a referred case gets their first hearing in a year. And then maybe not for two or three years. COVID exacerbated that. Judges coming and going and just a general lack of judges and slowness of cases means [it could be] 2, 3, 4, 5 years before they get their final hearing heard. And of course, that means all that time they remain separated from family members who would be eligible to join them were they granted asylum and when they are eventually granted asylum, then they can begin that process of joining them. But it leaves the people at home in serious situations of danger, and sometimes unfortunate situations of violence and death.

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