U.S. to speed up asylum interviews in move that may affect Venezuelans fleeing Maduro

Hundreds of Venezuelans participate in a protest march against the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Miami on April 29, 2017.
Hundreds of Venezuelans participate in a protest march against the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Miami on April 29, 2017.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) will speed up asylum applications to give priority to the most recently filed cases as a way to avoid allowing applicants who are unqualified for asylum the ability to work in the U.S. while they wait — sometimes for years — for processing.

This announcement on Wednesday could have a particularly harsh impact on Venezuelan applicants. It is difficult to receive political asylum.

“The aim is to deter individuals from using asylum backlogs solely to obtain employment authorization by filing frivolous, fraudulent or otherwise non-meritorious asylum applications,” the USCIS said.

“Giving priority to recent filings allows USCIS to promptly place such individuals into removal proceedings, which reduces the incentive to file for asylum solely to obtain employment authorization,” it added.

As a result, the thousands of Venezuelans who have applied for asylum in the United States due to the authoritarian regime of President Nicolás Maduro may see their applications handled more quickly.

Several Miami lawyers told el Nuevo Herald that some people who submitted asylum requests in the last quarter of 2017 were surprised to receive USCIS notices scheduling interviews for January.

All the applicants processed so quickly were Venezuelans, said Elizabeth Blandon, president of the South Florida chapter of the Asylum Committee, which is part of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Asked whether the quicker processing could mean a wave of rejections for Venezuelans, Blandon said applications with merit are likely to be approved regardless of the date submitted.

Blandon said she handled the case of a Venezuelan who had a USCIS interview this month and already received notice that the agency recommended the application be approved.

The quicker interviews could affect claims because applicants may be required to produce their evidence more quickly, rather than having three, four or even five years to come up with the materials.

Over the past five years, the asylum office in Miami, which handles applicants from Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, has reported a backlog of several years, largely because of a spike in applications.

A USCIS bulletin sent to immigration lawyers said that during the last three months of 2017, the Miami office worked mostly on applications submitted in June 2013.

USCIS Miami Chief of Staff Tracy Pueschel wrote in an email to a lawyer that the “office has been looking at scheduling different case groups within our caseload to maximize our ability to address our existing and current receipts.”

The decision to speed up the asylum claim process was made official Wednesday with the USCIS statement, which says that its offices will first schedule interviews with the most recent applicants.

The statement added that USCIS agents will give priority to applicants who asked to reschedule their interviews and those who submitted their claims less than 21 days earlier.

USCIS currently faces a crisis-level backlog of 311,000 pending asylum cases as of Jan. 21. It’s not known how many are from Venezuelans, but the agency received 14,773 claims from Venezuelans in 2016 and 5,605 in 2015.

A total of 1,112 asylum applications by Venezuelans were approved from 2014 to 2016. It’s unknown how many cases involving Venezuelans were rejected, how many are under appeal or how many remain under consideration.

Follow Johanna A. Álvarez on Twitter: @jalvarez8.