WASHINGTON – Buffalo long has served as a way station for people fleeing the world's trouble spots – and now, because of a Trump administration decision, hundreds of asylum-seekers may end up stuck in Buffalo and in limbo.
The Trump administration has halted the processing of most asylum claims at the Newark, N.J., office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles asylum cases from upstate New York. Those government workers have been reassigned to deal with the flood of asylum-seekers at the Mexican border.
The move won't affect asylum-seekers who've already had a date in immigration court. But for many asylum-seekers in the Buffalo area, the decision is bound to make their fight for freedom even longer and more arduous.
"The unfortunate thing is that it really affects the client's day-to-day life," said Irene Rekhviashvili, senior staff attorney at Journey's End Refugee Services in Buffalo. "To not know when you're going to have the chance to tell your story, to not know whether you're finally safe or there's a risk of being returned to a country where perhaps death is imminent – it's very psychologically draining."
Rekhviashvili said she had about 30 clients seeking asylum who are now in limbo. Both she and other sources estimated the overall number of local asylum-seekers affected by the change to number in the hundreds.
They're part of the 40,000 pending cases from across the Northeast that are stuck because of a move U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spelled out in an Aug. 16 email to people who work with asylum-seekers.
Saying it would only interview "a small number" of asylum-seekers from the Northeast, Susan Raufer, director of the Newark asylum office, attributed the move to "shifting priorities and the continued influx of cases at the Southwest Border."
Rather than interview asylum-seekers in the Northeast, staffers from Newark "will continue to travel to the Southwest border," Raufer wrote.
The move will not affect "defensive" asylum-seekers, those who seek asylum in immigration court under threat of deportation. Most of those staying at Buffalo's Vive Shelter, an East Side home for asylum-seekers, are in that situation, said Anna Ireland Mongo, Vive's chief program officer.
But many others are "affirmative" asylum-seekers. That means they decided to apply for asylum after traveling to the U.S., perhaps on a student visa or by other legal means, meaning they're not under threat of immediate removal from the country.
For those asylum-seekers, "if the officers from Newark are frozen, that means we're frozen, too," Mongo said.
Previously, staffers from Newark would travel to Buffalo periodically to interview asylum-seekers to see if they might qualify for refuge in the U.S.
That won't be happening anymore, though, thanks to the crush of Central American migrants pouring over the southern border.
"This is probably going to last for a long time," said Matthew L. Kolken, a Buffalo immigration attorney. "Until the the press of immigrants at the southern border ameliorates, it's likely that all of those resources will remain located down south."
That means more local asylum-seekers will likely end up waiting for years before their cases are resolved.
That sort of wait can be emotionally devastating for people who want to stay in the U.S. out of fear that they suffer grave harm or even be killed if they go home, said Emma L. Buckthal, supervising immigration attorney at the Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project.
She cited the example of a client whose case dragged on for several years long before the recently announced policy change. That woman's family was pressing her to drop out of a local college and instead return home to take part in an arranged marriage.
"It was really challenging for me as the attorney, because she would call me in different states of mental distress, usually sobbing," Buckthal said. "And all I could tell her was, 'This really stinks – and you're going to have to try to hold yourself together as best as you can, because we can't make them adjudicate this any faster.' "