The Boston Asylum Office has the second lowest acceptance rate of any office in the nation, and granted asylum to only 11 percent of its applicants in 2021, according to a report by Maine legal aid organizations handling immigration cases and advocates for reform.

The report says the office that serves asylum seekers in and around Maine is plagued by bias and burnout, and that its low grant rate is “driven by a culture of suspicion” toward asylum seekers.

The process of seeking asylum in the United States begins with an application to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. Applicants must prove they are fleeing a country in which they previously suffered persecution or were at risk of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Applications go through asylum offices first, which can either grant asylum from the outset or refer an application to an immigration court for a judge to consider.

Jennifer Bailey, an attorney for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and one of the report’s authors, said almost all asylum seekers she works with eventually obtain asylum status through immigration court, after failing to be granted asylum at the Boston Asylum Office. But the court process can take years, and, while they’re waiting, applicants aren’t able to access federal student aid, social services or educational opportunities. Even worse, they spend that time away from their families, who can still be at risk.

“It’s not uncommon for people’s (families) left at home to die while they’re waiting, or to be lost within the violence,” Bailey said.


Collaborating with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project on the report were the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law, the ACLU of Maine and a visiting lecturer at Amherst College in Massachusetts who spent eight years waiting on a decision from the Boston Asylum Office and was ultimately denied in May 2021. Today, he and his family live in Canada.

During its first five years, the Boston office – which opened in 2015 and processes about 5,600 applications a year – granted roughly 15 percent of its asylum applications on average, the report states. Meanwhile, offices in San Francisco and New Orleans were accepting asylum requests at rates that were more than three times higher. Nationally, the acceptance rate from 2015 to 2020 was 28 percent, the report says.

The report acknowledged that asylum officers who approve or refer cases to court face a “complex and essential” list of responsibilities. Being overworked and having less time to consider cases often results in asylum officers sending more referrals to immigration court, said some former officers cited in the report.

Meanwhile, supervising officers play an “outsized” role in the asylum-granting process, according to the report. If an asylum officer recommends granting asylum and the supervisor disagrees, the officer could face retaliation in the form of more work or a negative performance evaluation, the report states.


The report’s authors contend that their research “strongly suggests” that Boston’s asylum office doesn’t consider applications from a neutral stance, “but rather presumes they must be fraudulent or pose a security threat.” Of 21 trainings for asylum officers mentioned in the report, 14 were focused on fraud detection. Former officers told the report’s authors that constantly hearing concerns about fraud and credibility made them think such problems were more prevalent than they were.


“They’re telling their story, which, no matter what, can involve this unimaginable trauma of torture and violence or sexual violence or death,” Bailey said of asylum seekers. “Put yourself in that position and imagine how hard it is to talk about the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in your life, and having this officer – who has the power to help you and your family – say ‘No, I don’t believe you.’”

According to the report, bias and skepticism in the office extend to certain countries. The Boston Asylum Office granted only 4 percent of asylum applications from the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2015 to 2020, even though the U.S. has acknowledged significant human rights violations in that country, including unlawful killings and torture, the report says. The office granted only 2 percent of its applications from Angola, another country where there is known abuse.

The Newark Asylum Office in New Jersey, which also serves some of New England, granted asylum to 17 percent of its applicants from Angola and 33 percent of its applicants from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

English-speaking applicants are nearly twice as likely to be granted asylum as non-English speakers, who are referred to immigration court 80 percent of the time, the report says. Asylum-seekers who can speak English are referred to immigration court just under 60 percent of the time.

The report recommends giving asylum officers more time to thoroughly consider each application for asylum and issue a fair response. It also suggests providing them with ongoing trainings, to detect and limit implicit bias.

Paula Grenier, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services office in Boston, did not respond to a request to discuss the Boston Asylum Office’s low grant rate compared with other offices and the disparities in its acceptance rates in relation to asylum seekers’ country of origin.



But the director of the Boston Asylum Office, Meghann Boyle, told the report’s authors in February that the low approval rates and disparities were the result of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and a significant number of filings by ineligible applicants – contentions the report’s authors said they found insufficient and inaccurate.

The groups behind the report are holding a virtual news conference Wednesday at 11 a.m. to discuss their findings.

Much of the data listed in the report was first requested in 2019 by the ACLU of Maine and other report authors, who ended up filing a complaint in federal court the following year when the agency still hadn’t responded. Eventually, they received more than 6,000 pages of “heavily redacted” information, and a five-year database of asylum application data.

Camrin Rivera, a third-year legal student who helped write the report, and who also works with asylum seekers through the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law, said what the school has received in response to its 2019 records request is incomplete.

“We’ve done a lot to get the data we have, but it’s just cracking the door open,” Rivera said. “There’s probably a lot more going on that we haven’t been able to see.”

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