Residents of a tent camp in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, shown in December, said they had been waiting over two months to be allowed to ask for asylum at a border crossing into the United States.

Residents of a tent camp in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, shown in December, said they had been waiting over two months to be allowed to ask for asylum at a border crossing into the United States. Cedar Attanasio / AP

Record Asylum Cases Met With Insufficient Staffing and Training, Watchdog Finds

Projections DHS uses to set workforce levels are off by as much as 50%, auditors say.

As the number of migrants making asylum claims continues to swell to record highs, the Homeland Security Department is mired in its processing of those cases by vacancies, insufficient training and poor data, according to a new government audit. 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is sending new asylum officers out to DHS’ family residential centers to conduct reasonable and credible fear interviews without properly training them for that work, according to a new Government Accountability Office report. This has forced officers to support new employees rather than focusing on their own caseloads, officials told GAO. It could also impact the quality of the screenings those new officers conduct, the auditors said. 

The number of asylum screenings has skyrocketed in recent years, more than doubling from fiscal 2014 to nearly 120,000 cases in fiscal 2019. USCIS is now missing its own deadlines for timely reviews in 30% of cases. When other components of DHS identify individuals for expedited removal from the United States, the immigrants can claim fear of returning to their home country due to the possibility of torture or persecution. Most individuals must demonstrate a “credible” fear to asylum officers, though some—such as those facing felony criminal charges—must meet a higher standard of a “reasonable” fear. 

More than one-in-five asylum officer positions were vacant as of March 2019. To address the growing caseload, DHS has deployed Border Patrol agents, refugee officers and former asylum officers to handle interviews. The agency maintains local and national models for staffing allocations, but GAO found USCIS has difficulty making projections and they are incorrect by as much as 50%. 

USCIS often moves around its employees according to needs, though GAO said this can cause some of the agency’s work to fall by the wayside. It has deployed asylum officers to the Southern border to process the surge of cases that have piled up in the Southwest. USCIS previously estimated 60-90 employees were assigned to detention facilities or Border Patrol stations along the U.S.-Mexico border per week in fiscal 2019. Other USCIS workers deployed on a voluntary basis to Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help conduct operations within the purview of those agencies.  

The agency said late last year it would undertake a dramatic surge in its hiring to fill vacancies and boost capacity. 

Once employees are onboarded, they receive a “basic training” to help them conduct screenings. GAO found they are often sent out on two-week deployments to family residential training centers, however, without specific training for those efforts. Instead, some local facilities tell their employees to review guidelines on their own time. 

“Providing pre-departure training, in addition to USCIS's basic training for new asylum officers, would help USCIS ensure that officers from all asylum offices are conducting efficient and effective fear screenings of families,” GAO said. 

President Trump has shaken up the asylum process, including by forcing many migrants to wait in Mexico for proceedings and making any immigrants who passed through a third country on their way to the United States ineligible for the relief. Asylum officers have complained they were forced to implement the changes with little warning and no training. They have butted heads with leadership and are suing the administration for changes it says violated U.S. and international law. 

USCIS does not maintain data on whether asylum officers issue decisions to ensure family unity, which GAO found hurt its capacity to make proper assessments workloads and immigration trends. It also does not have information on processing delays that occur regularly, which could help the agency mitigate those setbacks.  

GAO noted the Justice Department has set new goals to move cases through immigration courts more quickly after the initial fear screening, but the judges in those courts have repeatedly expressed concern about at least part of those efforts. A quota setting how many cases the judges must adjudicate each year creates perverse incentives and undermines their independence, they said. 

DHS management agreed with GAO’s findings, saying it would standardize its training and improve its data.