The Trump administration is halting the processing of most New England asylum cases, a move that will increase already daunting wait times for asylum-seekers and, critics say, serves as the latest volley in an ongoing assault by the president against legal immigration.
Officers who currently interview asylum-seekers in Newark and Boston will be diverted to the southern border, leaving behind more than 40,000 pending cases. Newark and Boston are the only two cities that process asylum claims for New England residents.
“Donald Trump has a very direct war on asylum,” said Matt Cameron, an immigration attorney and codirector of the Golden Stairs Immigration Center in East Boston. The Boston asylum office is “down to a skeleton crew, as far as I can tell.”
US Citizenship and Immigration Services told attorneys last week in an e-mail, which the Globe obtained, that it would no longer schedule any new asylum interviews in Boston and only a “small number” in Newark, because of “shifting priorities and the continued influx of cases at the Southwest Border.” Staff will finish cases in which interviews already took place, the letter said.
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, a vocal critic of the president’s immigration policies, tweeted the news Wednesday, bringing attention to what otherwise might have been written off as a technical personnel change.
A spokeswoman for Immigration Services said that all offices had been asked to set aside “some additional staff” to help conduct interviews in places where processing times have increased; they will not be sent to the border but will instead conduct credible fear interviews remotely. The agency said it has taken similar actions in the past and “it has always been temporary.”
Earlier, the agency’s director, Ken Cuccinelli, tweeted: “Just learned a Senator is falsely alleging @USCIS Boston/Newark stopped processing asylum claims. Completely false!” he wrote. “They are shifting *some* staff to help w/credible fear workload resulting from the historic humanitarian crisis at the border that Congress REFUSES to help fix.”
Cameron and other attorneys in Boston questioned why the Trump administration chose to redirect the majority of officers from the Boston and Newark offices, instead of diverting staff from across the country, putting less strain on all offices.
They suggested political motives were a factor. “You’re essentially freezing asylum applications in one of the bluest areas of the country,” Cameron said.
It was unclear Thursday if the agency was ordering a similar halt to asylum cases elsewhere around the country. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Both Massachusetts senators condemned the change.
Senator Elizabeth Warren said it is part of the Trump administration’s “shameful campaign to prevent people fleeing violence from finding refuge in the US.”
Senator Edward Markey, meanwhile, said that “reassigning Boston asylum officers will only punish the thousands of local asylum-seekers who have been waiting — in many cases, years — to have their cases processed.’’
The types of cases that will be affected in New England are called “affirmative” asylum cases.
Unlike migrants who cross the border and immediately request asylum, the vast majority of affirmative asylum-seekers arrived legally, according to Cameron, and apply for asylum within a year. Asylum officers then interview the applicants and determine if their claims are valid. In March, the Boston office completed almost 200 cases, approving asylum for 34.
Immigrants at the border face a different process: They usually have a “credible fear” interview, an initial screening by an asylum officer to determine whether they have a valid fear of persecution back home. That asylum officer cannot grant asylum. The migrants who are found to have a valid fear are sent to an immigration judge for a full hearing.
The asylum officers in Boston are being sent to the border to conduct those credible fear interviews, which they will do in person or by phone, according to the letter from US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Even before the new delay, asylum-seekers were already waiting three or four years to interview in New England, said Mahsa Khanbabai, who is chair of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“Now it’s going to take, what, five, 10 years?” she said. Those who have applied for affirmative asylum can generally work and live legally in the country while they wait for verdicts on their cases. But still, the years of uncertainty take their toll.
“They just want some finality,” Khanbabai said. Sometimes they’re forced to wait for the answers to basic questions: “ ‘Can I get a driver’s license? Can I get a job? Where can I put my children in school?’ ”
Some people who are waiting for asylum resolutions have family who are in danger back home, said Eliana Nader, an immigration attorney in Boston.
If they were granted asylum, they could petition to bring their families to the United States. They could get green cards, travel outside the country, and get on track to eventually become citizens. But with no asylum interviews, her clients are stuck in limbo, desperately waiting for any kind of information about what comes next.
That’s no accident, she said.
“Causing suffering through processing delays seems to be the point,” Nader said.