Challenges in the U.S. Asylum System Impacting Survivors of Torture

This webinar, from September 18, 2013, features Emily Good, Esq., and Annie Sovcik, Esq..

This webinar is part of the National Capacity Building (NCB) webinar series. NCB is a project of the Center for Victims of Torture.


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Wednesday, 18 September 2013


This webinar is an opportunity for staff of torture treatment programs to review current issues in U.S. asylum law and how those challenges impact healing for survivors of torture.  During this update on asylum law & trends for service providers working with torture survivors we focus on credible fear interviews and asylum presentations especially on the Southern border, including what happens to clients in the process, where they go after entry, and differences between those claims and affirmative cases. Presenters share a brief update on cases based on social group membership, including gang-related issues and domestic violence, which are two groups commonly being seen in credible fear claims. Finally, the webinar concludes with a brief note about proposed changes to asylum law in the immigration reform proposal, what these would mean for torture survivor clients, & how to talk about the proposal.


1)    Participants will deepen their knowledge of current refugees in the United States.
2)    Participants will analyze the elements of the “refugee” definition and bars to asylum in the context of case studies. Participants will gain knowledge of recent trends and changes in immigration issues relevant to torture survivors including

  •  Increases in Credible Fear Reviews

  • Social Group Cases – Gang-related and domestic violence Immigration Reform – possible asylum impacts

3)    Participants will have an opportunity for Q&A regarding trends and changes in immigration proceedings


Emily Good

Staff Attorney for Research, Education & Advocacy

Advocates for Human Rights

Emily Good is a Staff Attorney for Research, Education & Advocacy. She is currently working on the One Voice Minnesota Monitoring Project, assessing how welcoming Minnesota is for immigrants and refugees using a human rights framework. Ms. Good was the previous director of the Refugee & Immigrant Program representing asylum seekers before the Asylum Office, Immigration Court and the Board of Immigration Appeals, in addition to advising volunteer attorneys. Ms. Good often speaks about immigration and asylum law to various groups, and co-authored an article about asylum that was published in Hennepin Lawyer in May 2006. In 2005, Ms. Good was named an "Up and Coming Attorney" by Minnesota Lawyer. Ms. Good is currently co-teaching the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School as an adjunct. She chaired the Human Rights Committee of the Minnesota State Bar Association for three years. Ms. Good received her J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School in 2003 and has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Iowa.

Annie Sovcik

Director of the Washington Office

Center for Victims of Torture

Ms. Sovcik has spent almost ten years working on refugee, asylum and immigration policies. Prior to joining CVT, Ms. Sovcik was the Advocacy Counsel for the Refugee Protection Program at Human Rights First where she focused on laws and policies impacting refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Ms. Sovcik was also a Staff Attorney with the Access to Justice and Children’s Services units at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.  As a law student, she interned at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Washington, DC and the Pro Bono Asylum Representation Program in Harlingen, TX.  Prior to law school, Ms. Sovcik taught English in Shanghai, China. She is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Law and received her B.A. in International Studies from the University of Denver. Ms. Sovcik is admitted to practice law in the State of Maryland and presently serves at the Vice-Chair of Refugee Council USA.


The following are expanded answers from Emily Good to questions that came up in the webinar:

Work Permits

To more fully clarify the work permit question: you have to wait 180 days to actually work, but you may apply for work authorization after 150 days, because we include the 30 day period that USCIS has to process the application. But, the person has to have 180 days from date of filing of the asylum application before they can work - we've seen people where their "clock" stopped at 178 days, and therefore they weren't work eligible.

Clarifying CAT vis-à-vis refugee/asylum status

One thing to keep in mind is that someone who fits the definition of a refugee, to qualify for refugee status or asylum status, may not necessarily be a torture survivor. On the other hand, someone who is a torture survivor may qualify for Convention Against Torture protection but not meet the refugee/asylum definition because they weren't tortured "on account of" a protected ground. So, in talking about particular social group, we really want to highlight where there is growth and develop in asylum claims in the U.S., but depending on where you work, you may not be working with those clients because they may not meet the definition of torture or may not fall under the service guidelines for your organization.

Long Waits for decisions from asylum offices

Another follow up to a question about long waits for decisions from the Asylum Office. I want to elaborate my point about credible fear interview increases. The chart showed a huge increase, from ~ 1,000 in 2011 to more than 4500 (per month) in 2013. The officers conducting credible fear interviews are the same asylum officers who conduct affirmative asylum interviews. USCIS Headquarters prioritized credible fear interviews, and many, many officers were detailed down to Houston, TX to conduct interviews. This means they were pulled away from asylum interviews & decision making in their home offices. Therefore, the wait times for decisions and interviews has grown rapidly in the past year or so. Chicago Asylum Office covers our jurisdiction, (Minnesota) and we know they are also understaffed. We've seen far fewer visits for interview and also much longer waits (up to a year or more) for decisions in the past year. So, unfortunately, the wait times are longer and somewhat more unpredictable. I suspect the sequester may have an impact as well, at least on those of us in cities that require travel - those funds may be more limited. Finally, some cases (gender cases, domestic violence cases, and others) require headquarters review - which delays things as well.


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