Recently, headlines describing war abroad and the millions who have fled Ukraine seeking refuge dominate the news. The United States has rallied to support refugees and provide humanitarian aid. While this aid is remarkable, we must remember that the world refugee crisis is expansive. Worldwide, at least 82.4 million people have been forced to flee their homes. As student attorneys in the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at Maine Law, we have had the privilege of representing asylum seekers who have fled persecution, coming to the United States for the sake of their lives and the safety of their families.

A recent report by Maine Law student attorneys Emily Gorrivan and Jamie Nohr, which uses the Boston Asylum Office as a case study, reveals that asylum offices are plagued by bias, cultures of suspicion and distrust toward asylum seekers like this 38-year-old man from Angola, who uses the alias Patrick. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

But instead of receiving the protection they are entitled to, they are too often met with suspicion and rejection by asylum officers (who decide asylum cases). Indeed, the national asylum grant rate of U.S. asylum offices is just 28 percent. Some asylum offices, including the Boston Asylum Office, maintain a dismal 10 to 15 percent grant rate, rejecting far too many meritorious asylum claims. The practices of asylum offices have direct effects on asylum seekers, prolonging separation from family who remain in danger abroad and compounding trauma.

The bottom line is that the U.S. asylum system is broken, which makes the president’s recent proposal to streamline the asylum process inherently problematic. The proposed rule rests upon the mistaken assumption that asylum officers decide cases from a neutral and non-adversarial standpoint. On the contrary, a report that we co-authored, which uses the Boston Asylum Office as a case study, reveals that asylum offices are plagued by bias, cultures of suspicion and distrust toward asylum seekers.

Per Human Rights First, the new rule imposes “counterproductive rocket docket adjudications that threaten accurate asylum decisions.” Under the new rule, cases will be decided within months (compared to the current timeline, which spans years). This quick timeline violates due process and makes it difficult for asylum seekers to find an attorney and gather critical evidence. Moreover, the responsibility of this decision-making will rest on the shoulders of officers who are overburdened. As explained in our report, asylum officers already cut corners because of time constraints and caseloads. Giving more credence to asylum officers is patently troublesome because, as explained in our report, asylum officers are afflicted by bias, burnout and compassion fatigue. The new rule will only exacerbate these existing problems, which will have devastating effects on asylum seekers like our clients. It will fast-track the deportation of those who face persecution or even death upon return to their native country.

Before expanding the power of asylum officers, the existing systemic problems must be remedied. Asylum officers, who often interview many applicants in a single day, should be limited to one interview per day. This would provide asylum officers with time to thoroughly complete their job duties and comply with due process requirements. Additionally, while the Biden administration must hire more staff, the hiring standards should be rigorous, seeking those with language skills and cultural humility (the ability to engage in critical self-reflection while recognizing power imbalances). Furthermore, existing training for asylum officers should be improved to focus on implicit bias and racism, particularly on how implicit biases operate and how to mitigate bias.

Our clients, and thousands like them, come to the United States with hope for a better life – a life where they will be free from violence and where the rule of law will protect them. Instead, they are all too often degraded and forced to relive their trauma. Implementing the new rule without significant reform to current practices undermines asylum seekers’ due process rights and gives more power to an already-unscrupulous government institution. If we truly desire to support refugees and provide humanitarian relief, we must do better.

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