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Statutes of Liberty: Meet your Asylum Officer — Jennifer Bibby-Gerth

This sponsored column is by Law Office of James Montana PLLC. All questions about it should be directed to James Montana, Esq., Doran Shemin, Esq., Janice Chen, Esq., and Austen Soare, Esq., practicing attorneys at The Law Office of James Montana PLLC, an immigration-focused law firm located in Falls Church, Virginia. The legal information given here is general in nature. If you want legal advice, contact us for an appointment.

[This is the second installment in our new series here at Statutes of Liberty, in which we interview professionals in our field to provide our readers with varying perspectives on what it is like to work in the immigration system.]

For our second installment — Meet Your Asylum Officer — we are pleased to introduce Jennifer Bibby-Gerth, Esq., a former asylum officer and current Senior Managing Attorney at Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services, Archdiocese of Washington.

Jennifer Bibby-Gerth tells it like it is.

A Q&A between Ms. Bibby-Gerth and James Montana follows here.

Montana: Jennifer, let’s introduce you to the readers. When were you an asylum officer, and for how long?

Bibby-Gerth: I worked as an asylum officer for about six years, from about December 2007 to September 2013. I was a line officer first, and then a Quality Assurance Trainer; in the latter role, I reviewed the work of supervisory asylum officers.

Montana: Let’s get to the heart of the matter: the backlog. We all know that the asylum office is backed up. There are, by the admission of the Asylum Directorate, ONE MILLION pending cases. How many interviews is each officer supposed to do per week?

Bibby-Gerth: When I worked at the Arlington Asylum Office, officers would conduct two interviews per day, four days per week. Sometimes there would be one additional interview per week, for a total of 16-18 interviews every two weeks.

Montana: So, that’s how many interviews get done. How many decisions get made in the same period?

Bibby-Gerth: Approximately the same number. At the asylum office, an asylum officer writes her recommendation, and then the case is forwarded for Supervisory review by a Supervisory Asylum Officer (SAO). A few cases also are sent to headquarters for a review of the recommendation to grant asylum or refer to immigration court. In addition, background checks have to be completed.

Montana: Do grant rates vary widely between asylum officers?

Bibby-Gerth: Yes.

Montana: Why?

Bibby-Gerth: People are different.

Montana: Do SAOs (supervisory asylum officers) have significant influence over the decisions of line officers?

Bibby-Gerth: The SAO is supposed to check for legal sufficiency in the decision. Some SAOs insert themselves to a greater degree.

Montana: Why do I have cases that have been pending for years post-interview?

Bibby-Gerth: Headquarters review is usually the bottleneck. After an initial recommendation is made, the supervisory asylum officer sometimes forwards the case to Quality Assurance, then Quality Assurance forwards the case to a Headquarters Asylum Officer. There are very few Asylum Officers at headquarters.

Montana: Why?

Bibby-Gerth: Cases that require Headquarters review often are complex. They also might require multiple layers of headquarters review. For example, they might need to be reviewed by a team that makes decisions regarding issuing exemptions to the Terrorist Related Inadmissibility Grounds when a person (may or may not) have given support to a terrorist organization under duress.

Montana: How are working conditions at the Arlington Asylum Office?

Bibby-Gerth: They’re fine. Sometimes the number of interviews per two week period got to be too much.

Montana: Is the workforce unionized?

Bibby-Gerth: Yes.

Montana: How much power does the union have?

Bibby-Gerth: Substantial power. If an asylum officer has a conflict with management, say a Supervisory Asylum Officer, the union represents the interests of the asylum officer.

Montana: Is the current LIFO system a good idea? (Attorney note: Last In, First Out — the newest cases get heard first, then the most recent ones, then the older ones, then the oldest ones)

Bibby-Gerth: They’re not doing LIFO.

Montana: What?

Bibby-Gerth: They say that they’re doing LIFO, but that’s not what’s actually happening at the asylum office. They’re mainly doing Credible Fear interviews and interviewing paroled Afghan asylum applicants.

Montana: Let’s turn to information that asylum seekers should know. What’s the most important part of an asylum application?

Bibby-Gerth: By far, the Declaration. (Montana’s note: The declaration contains a plain-language statement of why the applicant for asylum fears returning home.)

Montana: How long should it be?

Bibby-Gerth: Definitely less than ten pages.

Montana: Do unrepresented clients draft better declarations than attorneys do?

Bibby-Gerth: No, never. Attorneys are better at providing the information that matters.

Montana: What’s the solution to the backlog?

Bibby-Gerth: Amnesty. We’ve been here before. We had a huge backlog of Central American asylum cases in the 1980s. In 1997, Congress passed NACARA, effectively an amnesty for those applicants, and then the asylum system was able to return to a sustainable pace.

Montana: Thank you very much for your time today. (Rummages around in his bag.) Would you like a home-baked loaf of bread for your trouble?

Bibby-Gerth: Thanks, James. I’ll share it with the other lawyers at lunch!

As always, we welcome your comments and will do our best to respond.

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