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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

New migrants have a year to apply for asylum. Many won’t make it.

Immigrants with appointments wait in line for admission to the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in New York, on May 11, 2023. Tens of thousands of people who crossed the border in the last year planned to apply for asylum. But the complexities of the process mean many will fail.

By Hurubie Meko and Raúl Vilchis

Santos Lopez uprooted his family and walked nearly 2,000 miles on a dangerous trek from Honduras to the United States in the spring of 2022 to escape from a violent gang that was extorting him. The group demanded a monthly payment, he said, to allow him to run his car shop in peace.

Like many others, Lopez and his family hoped their experience would persuade their adopted country to give them asylum, which is granted to those who face a “credible fear of persecution in their country of origin.” A grant of asylum would allow them to work and eventually apply for a green card and citizenship.

But more than a year after his family — including his wife and two daughters — arrived safely at the southern border, it seems likely they missed the deadline to apply. Lopez, 42, said he was seeking help from a lawyer.

Lopez and his family are among the millions of migrants who have arrived at the southern border in the past year. Many, after telling border agents about abuse and persecution that they experienced, a first step in the long and complicated process of seeking asylum, have been temporarily released as they wait for their immigration cases to wind their way through courts.

But even as migrants have applied for asylum in record numbers, advocates and immigration attorneys say that without additional legal support, many — perhaps the majority — will miss their application deadline and fall into a more perilous category of immigrant: those living in the country illegally.

“Our immigration system is broken,” said Henry Love, vice president for policy and advocacy at Win, which runs 14 family shelters and has a contract with New York City to house migrant families.

“You’re going to have so many people who won’t have the opportunity to apply for asylum simply because of the logistical complications of it,” he said, adding: “I have a Ph.D., and there’s no way I could do it.”

As migrants have fanned out across the United States, many leaders and immigrant advocates have begun referring to the newcomers as asylum-seekers, not simply immigrants. In the fiscal year that ended in September, a record 250,000 asylum applications were filed nationwide, increasing the total number of pending applications to nearly 1.6 million, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

New York City has become the top destination for newly arrived migrants. From March to May of this year, nearly 39,000 new immigration court cases were filed in New York City, compared with about 11,000 in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and about 16,000 in Los Angeles County, according to the clearinghouse’s data.

As of June 25, more than 81,200 migrants had arrived in New York since the spring of 2022, and 50,000 are housed in city shelters, according to city data.

Migrants who want to apply for asylum generally have 12 months to submit their completed applications — although many, like the Lopez family, are uncertain about the timeline. If people don’t submit their applications in time, it can jeopardize the new lives they were constructing in their adopted cities.

People who formally seek asylum are allowed to remain in the country to await a decision in their case, and applicants can apply for temporary employment authorization 150 days after successfully filing their application.

Asylum-seekers miss their application deadlines for myriad reasons.

The application itself can be incredibly difficult: It is 12 pages long and in English, and includes questions such as the past five addresses where the applicant lived, the names and addresses of relatives and a portion to explain — in detail — what harm or mistreatment they have faced. Missing one question can result in the return of an application.

Just knowing where to submit the application is complicated and depends on the specific details of each new arrival’s case.

Additionally, new arrivals must quickly engage with the immigration court system to avoid being immediately deported. But they often discover that critical immigration documents have been sent to incorrect addresses, meaning they miss important court dates, putting them at risk of being deported. Some new arrivals have also reported receiving initial court hearing dates that are long past their deadline to apply for asylum.

They must do all this through a backlogged court system, which can make the process more complicated and time-consuming. And many migrants navigate the process alone because of a shortage of immigration attorneys and advocates.

Jodi Ziesemer, director of New York Legal Assistance Group’s immigrant protection unit, said that even for those who regularly practice immigration law, the administrative complexities can be confusing.

“Even when you get down to submitting the application, it can be unclear where you need to submit it for it to be accepted,” she said.

In June, Mayor Eric Adams announced the creation of the Asylum Application Help Center, which will bring together immigration legal service providers and pro bono attorneys and aims to serve thousands of asylum-seekers by the end of the summer.

Attorneys at the center will help asylum-seekers complete their applications and file them, but the attorneys will not represent clients through the court process.

As the city works to help migrants, the flow of newcomers continues.

Ruthmary Murillo, 23, originally from Venezuela, came to the United States from Colombia in September with her husband, Diego, and their two young children. Murillo said her family plans to apply for asylum, but they haven’t started the process yet.

“When I came, I didn’t know anything,” she said, adding: “In the shelter, we didn’t find out about anything.”

Her family is now connected to a help center at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, she said.

“They have helped orient us,” Murillo said. “Now we know a little bit more about what we need to do.”

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