US: Former GALZ Activist In 7-year Asylum Limbo; Trump-era System Blamed

Spread This News


On a Saturday in August 2012, Lewis Kunze was hosting a meeting for Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, one of the few LGBTQ+ groups in Zimbabwe. While there are secret nightclubs for queer communities in Zimbabwe, LGBTQ+ people have historically been arrested and abused.

As members were chatting, dancing, and enjoying themselves, Kunze said the police arrived, raided the establishment, and arrested 44 people who were at the meeting. The police beat them with batons and humiliated them. Two years later, a secret government agent falsely accused Kunze of “recruiting people to become gay.”

Terrified that he would be tortured again, Kunze decided to flee Zimbabwe and came to the U.S. in late 2014. By March 2015, he applied for asylum as a torture survivor. Since then, he has been stuck in a processing limbo, waiting seven years for an interview with no date in sight.

“I am still waiting for asylum,” Kunze said. “I have been waiting for this long, and I could still be returned; you never know.”

Kunze’s concerns are the same as over 430,000 other affirmative asylum-seekers who have been subject to a processing policy referred to as “Last in, First Out” (LIFO), which prioritizes recently submitted applications over older cases.

A person who applies for affirmative asylum this year should have their interview within 45 days, but the wait is averaging 1,621 days. For those who applied in 2015, 2016, or 2017 when the backlog began, the delay has lasted seven years.

Former President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency responsible for processing affirmative asylum applications, to reinstate the LIFO system in 2018. According to USCIS, the policy was originally introduced in 1995 by then-President Bill Clinton to reduce the backlog and deter asylum-seekers who apply as a means to obtain work authorization.

LIFO was in place for 20 years until December 2014, when then-President Barack Obama’s administration temporarily adopted a “First-In-First-Out” (FIFO) scheduling system, processing applications as they arrived. However, according to immigration advocates, the policy has failed to reduce the backlog, with the backlog increasing by 450,000 cases from 163,000 in 2017, right before LIFO was reinstated, to 614,000 in 2020.

The wait has also forced thousands of asylum-seekers to live in constant uncertainty about their status.

Kunze, who now resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and works as a community health worker with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said the stress and anxiety has resulted in severe mental and physical health problems, including diabetes, major depressive disorder, and high blood pressure that is now affecting his kidneys. He feels the asylum office has forgotten him.

“There’s nothing I can do [to move my application along],” Kunze said. “But this is what is happening to me in the bigger picture.”

In the interim, Kunze said he has spent over $1,600 on work permit applications, which he has to reapply for every two years.

On March 29, Biden announced actions to address the work permit backlog and immigration applications, but the measures do not apply directly to processing affirmative asylum cases.

Andrea Barron, the advocacy program manager for Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, said the asylum-seekers and torture survivors are suffering the most from LIFO. Many applicants are separated from family members who are still in their home countries.

According to Barron, applicants report that their children experience ongoing violence and are punished for their parents being known as dissidents. One applicant was a mother with a 14-year-old daughter in Ethiopia. Her daughter was raped as punishment for her mother being a known dissident. According to Barron, had her mother gotten an interview, she could have brought her daughter to the U.S. and prevented the attack.

“Torture survivors have experienced significant trauma and are left in limbo, often separated from their families, and this exacerbates the trauma,” Barron said. “These tragic outcomes could have been avoided had their applications been processed promptly.”

Barron has been advocating for a concrete solution to the problem. She suggests that USCIS hire asylum officers designated to address asylum applications that were filed five or more years ago.

While USCIS says they have increased the number of authorized asylum officers from 273 in 2013 to 771 in 2019, Barron said this increase has had hardly any effect on increasing the number of interviews for torture survivors and other asylum-seekers waiting more than five years for an interview.