The immigrant clients of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) know what it is like to wait for a legal determination that will decide their fate, a decision that never comes. They have heard too often, and said too often, “Solo tenemos que esperar” (We just have to wait).
Currently, hundreds of thousands of asylum applicants who are waiting for an asylum interview with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) are stuck in limbo forever. With a recent January 2018 change in policy for scheduling asylum interviews, which schedules the most recently filed asylum applicants first for an interview using a “last in, first out” system, USCIS is currently making decisions on recently filed asylum applications only.
As with many policies and laws, this change was not a neutral one. USCIS was not shy about sharing its reason for the switch, stating that the new policy aimed to deter individuals from filing frivolous or fraudulent asylum applications, and “promptly place such individuals into removal proceedings,” presumably to be ordered for deportation by an immigration judge. To me, it seemed the Trump Administration-led Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, might as well have said, loud and clear: we do not trust asylum seekers, and immigrants that we do not trust must be deported as quickly as possible.
Asylum seekers who applied for asylum as long ago as 2015 and as recently as December 2017 are stuck, their cases never to be up for interview scheduling as USCIS struggles to process and interview most recently filed applications first. They just have to wait, and wait, and wait, for their chance to tell their story and ask the U.S. government for protection and refuge from further persecution in their countries of origin. What is incredibly difficult for my clients is the not knowing. No one, not your lawyer, not other people who have gone through the process, can say with certainty how long you will have to wait for your immigration case to be decided next.
I have told my clients that they should try their hardest to live their lives, that they should build community, get work or an education, believing they are going to be able to stay. But how can one eliminate the fear of potential deportation so easily, or at all? For our transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex (TGNCI) clients, deportation to their countries of origin can be a death sentence. While New York City is by no means a safe haven for TGNCI people of color, who are routinely harassed and discriminated against, here our immigrant clients find relative peace and meaningful potential for gender self-determination and safety from violence.
Too many of our immigrant clients have fled countries of origin where they survived horrific violence, witnessed another TGNCI person get killed, or were targeted because of their identity or gender presentation. In New York City, our immigrant clients heal by connecting with real, established TGNCI immigrant communities and support groups that become chosen family. They heal by receiving lifesaving healthcare to address transition-related health needs, mental health and trauma, and HIV.
My clients tell me over and over again that being ripped apart from these resources and forced to return to their country of origin is simply not an option. My clients tell me over and over again that they fear this outcome, every day.
This problem is not limited to the asylum backlog. It is also seen with applicants for the U Visa, an immigration benefit for victims of crime in the United States, who must wait years and years without work authorization to learn if their application has been approved by USCIS. At SRLP, we have seen U Visa applicants yet to receive their approval or denial notice who have waited since 2013.
It is also seen in immigration courts, where court dates to decide an immigrant’s fate are scheduled easily four or five years into the future. An immigration judge scheduling such a hearing is so used to immigration court backlogs, being faced with it every day, that they forget to show regard for the psychic toll that such wait times place on individual immigrants.
As a community of TGNCI immigrants and allies, it is so important to learn and acknowledge how the way we structure our legal processes and our bureaucracies strain our loved ones in unseen but utterly real ways. And we cannot win when we do not understand what deeply hurts a few of us, and so neglect to address it in our fight for liberation.