Asylum seekers face legal challenges and backlogs in New York City

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After months of a rapid influx of asylum seekers into New York City — many fleeing political persecution in Venezuela and many busted here from Texas and Arizona — the influx of people at the southern border appears to have slowed due to policy changes by the Biden administration to slow down .

But with more than 21,000 new arrivals in New York since the spring, the flow of migrants seeking asylum in New York City’s immigration courts is the strongest it has been in months.

On Tuesday morning, hundreds of new migrants lined up outside Lower Manhattan’s 26 Federal Plaza, home to the largest of New York City’s three immigration courts. Some of the migrants were there to report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while others were called for their first hearing in their deportation process.

Applying for and being granted asylum is a process that can take years, and status is only granted to those who can show that they fear persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. Asylum seekers have one year after arriving in the United States to submit their asylum application, and they must wait another five months after submitting that application to even apply for a work permit in the United States.

For the thousands of migrants who have arrived in recent months, the process of obtaining asylum status is a confusing and bureaucratic maze, compounded by an overwhelmed court system and a lack of immigrant legal services. For many the labyrinth begins in front of 26 Federal Plaza at dawn. “It took me an hour to get here from the Bronx and I’ve been here since 5 a.m.,” said Miguel, an asylum seeker from Venezuela who waited outside immigration court and refused to give his last name for fear it could affect his application. Others waiting in line at 26 Federal Plaza Tuesday morning arrived as early as 4 a.m

An immigration procedure is initiated by a summons to appear in court. Immigration attorneys said in order to come to the United States on parole, the recently arrived asylum seekers are requested at the border to show up for an ICE check-in shortly after their arrival at their final destination, and after these check-ins appearances are filed with the court. Alexia Schapira, senior attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said asylum seekers are not typically required to report to ICE before filing a complaint.

Because of the excessive number of people who showed up at the building that houses both the immigration court and the ICE field office, lawyers and attorneys said people started arriving for ICE check-in as early as 2 or 3 a.m , hoping to just get in the building. “At one point, the guards just cut the line and didn’t let everyone in the building even though they had ICE appointments that day,” Lauren Wyatt, senior attorney at Catholic Charities Community Services, said in a press briefing last month from the New York Immigration Coalition.

Speaking to City & State on Tuesday, Wyatt said the situation has not improved as inflow at the border has slowed. “The system is simply busy – or overwhelmed. It’s overloaded,” she said. “For this reason, the government is not able to process individuals, even though it imposes processing requirements on them.”

Immigration advocates warn that the overburdened system puts applicants in a paradoxical situation where they have a year-long deadline to apply for asylum, but are unable or confused about how to take the first steps to submit their application in time deadline.

People who are turned away from checking in at ICE because the building is congested have been instructed to make appointments via email. However, those dates have been set until mid-2024, well beyond the one-year deadline for newly arrived asylum seekers.

Delays in starting the asylum application process also delay the process of obtaining a temporary legal work permit, which people can apply for 150 days after filing their asylum application. “If the earliest they can apply for asylum is sometime in 2024, the earliest they can apply for their work permit is late 2024, which means they will be here for over two years without being able to legally work,” Wyatt said. “So people really are in an impossible position.”

When asked about the long deadlines for ICE check-ins and the confusion over how asylum seekers can submit their applications in a timely manner, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review — which oversees the immigration court at 26 Federal Plaza — responded – said it had been in contact with the Department of Homeland Security. “Our immigration judges are aware of the issue and remain aware of it when deciding on requests to reopen or continue cases,” a department spokesman wrote in an email. The punitive maze that asylum seekers face could at least be cleared up by the immigration lawyers and legal aid organizations in the city. “Access to legal counsel is one of the single greatest factors that can change the outcome of a case and can help someone navigate the legal system and hopefully obtain the status or relief to which they are entitled under applicable law” , Camille Mackler, founder of the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative, said at a news conference last month.

However, advocates said there were insufficient legal means to meet the demand. Catholic charities run programs to help people who do not have immigration attorneys and provide walk-in services at the city’s immigration courts. “Our program is on almost every day in one of the courts, but we can’t possibly see them all,” Wyatt said. “Last Friday, our attorney was able to see eight people and we turned 50 people away.” Wyatt and Mackler have called for new city and state investments in legal services for immigration officials and rapid legal responses to meet the moment.

Several people who stood in line at 26 Federal Plaza on Tuesday, including a couple staying at a Queens municipal animal shelter, said they had not had contact with attorneys or received legal advice. New York City has established emergency humanitarian and assistance centers — one for families at Hotel Row NYC and a tent city for single men on Randall’s Island — and opened more than 50 emergency centers in hotels across the city for temporary housing for newcomers.

A city hall spokesman said asylum seekers have access to legal information at the Randall’s Island and Row hotels and that staff at those locations can make appointments with legal providers through the city’s Asylum Seeker Resources Navigation Center. Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has also called for state and federal investment, and for the federal government to expedite work permits for asylum seekers.

– with additional reporting by Ralph R. Ortega

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