Dr. Basileus Zeno, who came to the U.S. after fleeing Syria, knew that applying for asylum in the U.S would not be easy. He just never expected it to take 10 years before he was ultimately denied. He eventually moved his family to Canada after receiving the denial in 2021.
“There is no transparency, zero transparency, zero accountability, so they can do whatever they want by claiming they have a backlog or they don’t have enough officers … and because they don’t have really deadlines to show any decisions,” said Zeno of his experience at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Boston.
Immigration advocates say Zeno’s story is just one example of the issues they uncovered in a recent investigation named Lives in Limbo: How the Boston Asylum Office Fails Asylum Seekers. The report was compiled using data from Zeno, interviews he did with other asylum seekers and information from the University of Maine’s School of Law, ACLU-Maine and Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.
“What we found in our report was that there was a real culture of bias and discrimination and people were receiving different decisions based on racial and language bias,” said Susan Roche, the executive director at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.
The report found that between 2015 and 2020, the Boston USCIS office approved just 11% of the asylum claims it handled. The national average was nearly double that during the same time period. While located in Boston, the USCIS office in question handles cases from Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island
Zeno told Spectrum News, in an exclusive interview, that he felt “brutalized” while participating in interviews at the Boston office.
“They questioned my marriage … my marriage certificate was authenticated by many authorities, and I got my initial visa based on that. I’m with my wife. We have an American-born baby. Nevertheless, they spent five hours questioning my marriage. That’s not asylum. That’s a game basically,” Zeno said.
The report caught the attention of members of Congress including several from Massachusetts and Maine. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Representatives Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Assistant Speaker of the House Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Jake Auchincloss D-Mass.) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) jointly sent a letter to the Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security asking for an investigation into the Boston office’s practices.
“This report raises serious concerns about how the Boston Asylum Office processes applications. We need this investigation in order to ensure fairness and transparency for asylum seekers,” Sen. Warren told Spectrum News.
“I was alarmed by the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law’s report on the Boston Asylum Office’s unusually low grant rate. The ‘culture of suspicion toward asylum seekers’ and ‘overwhelming predisposition to refer asylum cases to immigration court’ goes against not just typical standards, but the values of our country as a haven for immigrants seeking safety on our shores. Our immigration system is broken, and we need to reform it to protect our national security, enhance our economic competitiveness and ensure the fair and humane treatment of all immigrants in this country,” Clark said in response to our story on the controversy.
Experts in Immigration law, Stephen Yale-Loehr of Cornell Law, explained that there are some outside factors that may have played a part in the Boston office’s low approval rate.
“There are a lot of reasons [including] high turnover of officers pressure to decide cases quickly …. if [officers] see the same kind of case over and over again, you sort of feel like you know that type of case without really probing into the individual facts of the case. … There’s a lot of disparity in all of the USCIS asylum offices and it got worse during the Trump administration. There was pressure from headquarters to make it harder to win approval. So approval rates across the country went down, they just seem to go down more in Boston than in some of the other USCIS asylum officers,,” said Yale-Loehr, who is co-director at Cornell’s Asylum Appeals Clinic.
A press release from Rep. Pingree’s office said the congresswoman has recently reintroduced legislation to help asylum seekers in a different way. Her Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act would reduce the current 180-day waiting period for work authorization eligibility to 30 days, allowing an asylum seeker to apply for authorization as soon as the asylum claim is filed.
Spectrum News reached out to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office for comment on the report about the Boston asylum office. A spokesperson for USCIS acknowledged they received our request by 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, but still hadn’t offered a response by Thursday morning.