Ryan Schuessler

US asylum process discourages applicants despite call to resettle refugees

Court backlog means Syrians who apply for asylum may wait longer than those applying for refugee status from abroad

ST. LOUIS — Ibro Tucakovic sees himself in the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland, pouring into Europe to find safety.

“Everybody deserved a chance for a new life,” said Tucakovic, now an insurance agent in suburban St. Louis after fleeing the Balkan wars and coming to the United States as a refugee. “Especially when people have everything they own taken from them. People should have a chance to sleep without being killed or persecuted.”

In 1993, when Tucakovic was 14, he was forced to leave his besieged hometown of Sarajevo as the former Yugoslavia was ripped apart during a bloody civil war that displaced hundreds of thousands. He was resettled in St. Louis, along with about 8,000 other Bosnian Muslims — part of the beginnings of a diaspora community that has since grown to nearly 80,000 people in the metropolitan area alone.

Tucakovic, 37, is one of more than 1,000 St. Louisans who marched through a popular entertainment district on Sept. 13 calling for the U.S. to accept more Syrian refugees — specifically to St. Louis, one of a handful of “preferred cities” for refugee resettlement. Pro-refugee demonstrations have taken place in other U.S. cities, including New York, and across Europe. Tens of thousands of Americans have signed petitions calling on President Barack Obama to resettle more refugees.

Sarab Al-Jijakli, a Syrian-American who helped to organize a refugee rights rally in New York City, addresses the crowd.
Albin Lohr-Jones / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

“I think as a nation we really have to look at the largest conflict and largest refugee issue since World War II,” said Rebecca Kehe, 24, who saw the desperate crowds of refugees at the Budapest train station during her recent trip to Hungary. “And see it for what it is, then move forward with policy.”

But that policy is broken, critics say, particularly when it comes to asylum seekers — those who apply for refugee status when they are physically in the United States. A court backlog means that asylum seekers can end up waiting longer for their applications to be reviewed than those who are applying for resettlement from outside the country, often with few services available.

About 1,700 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.S. — 29 of them in St. Louis. The State Department announced on Sept. 20 that the total number of refugees taken in from all countries would increase to 100,000 annually by 2017, including 10,000 Syrians to be resettled next year.

“So for the United States, with the largest economy, the larger landmass than Europe, accepts only 10,000 — that’s really unacceptable,” said Faizan Syed, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ St. Louis chapter, who helped organize the city's march.

Those applying for refugee status and resettlement to the United States from outside the country are required to stay in the country from which they applied while going through several rounds of interviews with U.S. federal agencies. Security concerns and strict rules regarding who can be admitted to the United States mean the application process can take up to two years.

“If someone assists an armed group in a combat situation, then they could be barred as a terrorist [and not let in] even though they may have done it under duress,” said Kevin Appleby, Director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “So someone could get a knock on the door. There’s armed soldiers there. ‘Feed us, or we’ll kill you.’ You feed someone lunch to spare your life, and [you’re] barred from resettlement.”

“One of the reasons it’s difficult is that post-9/11, we have new laws and new requirements with respect to security background checks and vetting,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Berlin on Sept. 20. “So it takes longer than one would like and we cannot cut corners with respect to those security requirements.”

Syrians fleeing violence wait at the Turkish-Syrian border to cross into Turkey on Sept. 18, 2014 near Turkey's Sanliurfa province.
Halil Fidan / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Asylum seekers are in a slightly different situation. While they are also seeking refugee status, individuals applying for asylum do so once they are physically in the United States, as opposed to those who apply for resettlement from outside the country. However, the asylum application review process can take even longer than those applying for resettlement, as the current backlog of asylum cases that have yet to be reviewed approaches 100,000.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officially says “we are unable to predict how long the process will take,” but Elanor Acer, Senior Director of New York-based nonprofit Human Rights First, said that applicants can wait for up to three years for their cases to be assessed.

“The immigration courts have been delayed and backlogged for years because of a persistent underfunding and understaffing of the immigration courts,” Acer said. “People seeking asylum can actually wait longer than those going through the resettlement process [who apply from outside the United States].”

In 2012, 327 Syrians were granted asylum in the U.S., up from 46 the year before. That number rose to 763 in 2013, according to data released from the Department of Homeland Security. This year, 83 percent of Syrian asylum applications that were opened were approved so far — 272 — but there are another 2,170 pending.

Asylum seekers are left with few benefits while they wait for the immigration courts to get to their case, Acer said, and they have to apply for a permit to legally work in the meantime.

“As far as federal benefits are concerned, until a person is granted asylum he is not eligible for anything,” Deputy Legal Director of NGO Human Rights First Anwen Hughes wrote in an email to Al Jazeera. “And for the first 150 days the application is pending, he (or she) is not allowed to work, either. After 150 days the applicant can apply for a work permit, which takes 30 days to process.”

There are individual states, including New York and Maine, that offer some types of benefits, Hughes said, but that is not the norm in the United States.

“As a result, surviving especially during those first six months (and for however long it takes a person after that to find a job) is a serious material challenge,” Hughes wrote. “It’s also psychologically draining for applicants who really want to be working, helping their families, and keeping their minds off the problems that drove them here.”

“It’s a very serious problem,” Acer said.

Those applying for asylum in Germany — which has said it will resettle upwards of one million refugees and takes in the second largest number of immigrants annually after the United States — are entitled to government benefits while their applications are pending. Under Germany’s Asylum Seekers’ Benefits Act, asylum applicants are entitled to “basic provision of food, accommodation, heating, clothing, healthcare and toiletries,” “pocket money for personal daily needs,” “benefits in the event of illness, pregnancy and birth,” and “additional benefits in special circumstances, depending on the individual case.”

Some 4 million Syrians have fled the country over the past several years. Other European countries such as Sweden and Denmark are fielding tens of thousands of asylum applications. The European Union is in the process of requesting its member states to take in thousands each as it attempts to delegate responsibility across the bloc.

However, it’s Syria’s neighboring states that continue to host the majority of its refugees at the moment. Nearly 2 million are living in Turkey, more than 700,000 are in Jordan, and the number surpassed one million in Lebanon earlier this year.

Hacer Janicek, who attended the St. Louis march, said Syrian refugees are living on her property in Turkey, her homeland.

“It’s just so heartbreaking,” said Janicek, 60, who marched in St. Louis for Bosnian refugees in the 1990s. “Seeing the people — especially the women and children — what they’re going through.”

If other countries can take in hundreds of thousands of refugees, Janicek and others said, so can the United States.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re having this march,” said Don Wallis, who drove to march in St. Louis with his wife Cathy. “I don’t have a number in mind, but I think a country as large as the United States should be able to support at least 10 times that amount.”

“We’re all united here,” Cathy Wallis said. “We’re not Muslim, we’re not Christian, we’re not anything other than people.”

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