Updated at 6:29 p.m. on March 23

The Boston asylum office for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services granted only about 11% of applications last year, less than half the national average, according to a report released Wednesday.

The report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine found that the Boston office had the second lowest grant rate across the country, with 15% approvals between 2015 and 2020, almost half that of the national average. New York, with a 11% grant rate over that same time period, was at the bottom of the list.

It’s an alarming rate as countries around the world face violent upheaval and natural disasters, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and now, Ukraine. There are around 20,400 immigrants with pending cases before the Boston office, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s New England chapter.

“The result of this disproportionately low grant rate is that people fleeing persecution in their home countries are wrongly denied asylum and the protections afforded to them by international and U.S. law,’’ the report said. “Asylum seekers may ultimately have to wait years for their cases to be resolved. During this time, they are separated from their family members abroad who often remain in danger.”

The study, titled “Lives in Limbo,” found the Boston office is “dominated by a culture of suspicion and distrust toward asylum seekers,” bias, and “compassion fatigue.” It calls for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees the Boston asylum office, commented Wednesday evening.

“USCIS adjudicators evaluate every petition and application fairly, humanely, and efficiently on a case-by-case basis before issuing a determination, and agency employees welcome people from all parts of the world to add their unique skills and talents to our American fabric," said a USCIS spokesperson in an emailed statement.

The spokesperson said that to accomplish their mission, USCIS's workforce must carry themselves as "professional stewards with all those we serve, and ensure they reflect high ethical standards in the workplace."

"USCIS remains committed to increasing access to eligible immigration benefits, breaking down barriers in the immigration system, and restoring faith and trust with our immigrant communities," the statement concluded. Questions about the reports findings were not answered.

The 36-page document also was authored by the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, and Dr. Basileus Zeno, a visiting lecturer at Amherst College.

Zeno, who has conducted fieldwork with Syrian asylum seekers and refugees, has personal experience within the system. ACLU officials say his story exemplifies problems in Boston.

Zeno came to the U.S. with his wife on student visas in 2012, fleeing Syria after he openly protested the Assad regime. He applied for asylum initially in Ohio before the case was transferred to Massachusetts when they moved in 2015. He filed documents showing the Syrian government’s track record of torturing, arresting and murdering dissidents like himself.

An interview with an asylum officer is supposed to happen within 45 days of an application being filed, but rarely ever does. The process can take many years, according to the report.

Officers have a laundry list of things to do when they review each asylum case, including to understand asylum laws, review hundreds of pages of documents, research country conditions and run background checks — all while being sensitive to an asylum seekers’ trauma.

Officers are supposed to create an accurate written record of the interview and act as adjudicator — which means they have to write a recommendation on whether to grant asylum, deny or refer the case to immigration court. Then they prepare for a review by their bosses, supervisory asylum officers. The pressure to move quickly, former asylum officers from other cities said in the report, caused "recycling" of decisions, whereby an officer would plug new details into old cases instead of offering a new assessment at the end of each case. Officers also become verbally aggressive with applicants, the report said.

“The attorneys further indicate that [asylum officers] sometimes become frustrated and even combative with applicants” read the report, adding that this “violates the requirement that asylum interviews be conducted in a non-adversarial manner.”

There are 11 asylum officers and five supervisory asylum officers at the Boston office, according to the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. An asylum officer’s decision is always reviewed and has to be approved by the supervisory asylum officer, and if they can’t agree, that can cause a host of problems.

Researchers said officers in Boston hone in on specific inconsistencies to expedite denial, or refer the case to immigration court. Some of those inconsistencies are derived from language or cultural barriers. Report authors said there’s implicit bias, with English-speaking asylum seekers nearly twice as likely to be granted asylum through the Boston office as compared to non-English speakers.

Another issue, they say, is memory loss from trauma, and the fallibility of human memory over the many years it takes to get interviewed.

A bearded man with headphones in speaks to the camera, sitting in an office chair and wearing a blazer
Dr. Basileus Zeno, a visiting lecturer at Amherst College speaks at a press conference unveiling the report on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.
Screengrab of press conference

Zeno’s first asylum interview came in 2017, the report says, and the officer spent a disproportionate amount of time asking about a taxi driver for a trip he took from Damascus to Beirut when he left Syria for the last time in 2012. This is the kind of minute detail that trips up many asylum seekers who don’t remember intricate details years after they’ve filed, according to the report.

In a follow up interview, the officer showed up with a list of questions from his supervisor, which Zeno claims focused on details around his religion and the validity of his marriage, even though the office had his marriage certificate.

The asylum officer, “doubted Basileus’s marriage and questioned the priest’s religion based on the [supervisory asylum officer’s] ignorant and stereotypical understanding of Arabic words and names,’’ the report said. “Almost none of the questions related to the first interview or the substance of Basileus’ asylum claim.”

Researchers allege that Boston asylum supervisor officers are “suspicious” of asylum seekers and are creating an atmosphere where lower level asylum officers feel pressured to refer cases to court or deny them. Asylum officers have a “predisposition to refer cases to immigration court,” according to the report, which is a very different kind of process.

Going to immigration court isn’t necessarily a bad thing because an asylum seeker gets another chance to plead their case. But immigration judges by nature scrutinize cases far more than asylum officers who are trained to be sensitive to trauma.

There’s also a backlog of cases at immigration court. There were 87,400 cases pending in the Boston immigration court at the end of last year, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which tracks immigration data. Across the country, there were nearly1.6 million pending cases at the end of 2021.

“They’re going to have a much longer process to get their cases approved because there is an enormous backlog at the Boston Immigration Court — the hearings are far out and therefore they're going to wait a few years before they have an individual hearing,” said Annelise Araujo, head of the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Authors of the ACLU report said this is important because of federal proposals to sidestep immigration courts and have asylum offices take on even more when both systems are already inundated.

The ACLU of Maine sued the federal government for the public records used in the report. They conducted 102 interviews with asylees and asylum seekers, attorneys, and former office employees from other regions. They eventually won the records and a database with asylum information, and approached Meghann Boyle, the head of the Boston asylum office, over their findings in February.

She gave two reasons for the grant disparities, the report said. Boyle told them that the COVID-19 pandemic “restricted the office’s ability to conduct substantive interviews, so the office focused heavily on cases that could be decided without interviews.” And, she said, the office saw an increase of filings from applicants ineligible for asylum who are using the process to avoid deportation through an immigration court referral.

The ACLU called her explanations “insufficient,” noting that the pandemic impacted asylum offices nationwide and couldn’t just impact the low approval ratings at one. They said individuals seeking deportation relief apply to asylum offices around the country and there’s no data the Boston office received a disproportionate number of those applications.

After the Boston office denied his case in May 2021, Zeno and his wife say they were forced to defend their Ph.D. dissertations early in order to keep their visa status.

The asylum office sent Zeno a notice requesting to “reopen” his case, seeking another interview in January of this year. But the decision was too late. A new decision couldn’t undo the “years of damage inflicted by the Boston Asylum Office’s traumatizing and humiliating treatment,” he wrote, and the family moved to Canada for new jobs and lives.