WASHINGTON — When Delali Dagadu found herself jobless, almost homeless and facing deportation after working five years as a career counselor, the Liberian native filed for asylum to avoid deportation and a return to her tribe, where she feared becoming a victim of female genital mutilation.

In 2012, Dagadu was among 21,512 immigrants who asked for the legal residence and political protection that comes with being granted asylum. But because Dagadu did not intend to seek asylum when she first arrived in the U.S. in 1999, she missed the one-year deadline for filing. The immigration judge granted her withholding of removal, but not approval for asylum.

Without an approved status, Dagadu cannot leave the U.S. She does not have health insurance, and she must renew her work permit every year. She cannot apply for citizenship or even permanent residence.

“Here, I’m a criminal without a crime,” said Dagadu, who speaks three languages and has previously lived in Ghana, Egypt and Syria.

Now, as comprehensive immigration reform emerges as a priority for the Obama administration, Human Rights First, other national refugee protection organizations, faith-based groups and legal experts are pushing to get Congress to eliminate the one-year asylum filing deadline that left Dagadu in what she calls a “certified limbo status.”

The Deadline Problem

Between 1998 and 2009, the more than 21,000 refugees were denied protection by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services because they did not file for asylum within one year of their arrival. Like Dagadu, some of them were not aware of the deadline, while others say they were too traumatized from previous persecution to take the steps needed to file for asylum.

“Experts know about the deadline. Advocacy agencies know about the deadline. The problem is that the ordinary asylum seeker does not,” said Andrew Schoenholtz, law professor at Georgetown Law School and the director of the university’s legal clinic. “They’ve never been told about it, and more importantly, they’ve been persecuted and traumatized.”

The deadline, established under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, had intended to prevent abuse and fraud in the refugee program. But since then, it’s backfired against asylum seekers, taxpayers and the immigration courts.

Advocacy groups have lobbied for the elimination of the one-year cutoff since its implementation, deeming it “inhumane” and “ineffective.” In 2011, the Refugee Protection Act proposed to reopen cases for those denied asylum on the basis of the deadline, but the bill died in the House Judiciary committee.

“The deadline is not accomplishing what Congress intended it to do, which was deal with abuse,” Schoenholtz said. “It’s affecting people in an adverse way, people who typically deserve asylum.”

A month ago, Human Rights First sent a letter with 162 signatures from advocacy organizations and experts to President Barack Obama and Congress calling for the elimination of the deadline and other changes to support refugee safety.

Sara Jane Ibrahim, advocacy counsel for Human Rights First’s refugee protection program, said the filing deadline is a high priority for asylum protection because it’s a simple problem with extreme consequences.

“The filing deadline requires a legislative fix,” Ibrahim said. “We think it could be included in the bipartisan Senate bill for immigration reform.“

Data from Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), collected by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC)

Data from Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), collected by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC)

“Certified Limbo Status”

The U.S. has a long history of protecting refugees and asylum seekers. Since World War II, the government has accepted millions of displaced people for humanitarian reasons.

“The system is an important humanitarian issue,” Schoenholtz said. “It’s important because how the U.S. behaves in terms of taking in refugees and asylees affects how other countries behave.”

In 2011, 56,384 immigrants were admitted as refugees, who file for protection outside of the U.S., and 24,988 were granted asylum, which is filed when an immigrant is already inside the U.S.  Both refugees and asylum seekers must prove a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group or political opinion under the Immigration and Nationality Act. In certain cases, women fleeing gender related harm, including female genital mutilation, may qualify for asylum.

There are two methods of application for asylum. For those who arrive in the U.S. on a valid visa, there is the affirmative asylum process in which Customs and Immigration Services approves or disapproves the case based on an interview. Those who arrive without any sort of visa or legal documents but request asylum at a port of entry are immediately detained and must prove credibility before immigration courts under the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Dagadu is among a third category of asylum seekers who arrive in the U.S. with some sort of temporary visa or enter without inspection, but overstay and face deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They can appeal for asylum before an immigration judge, but are often deterred by the one-year filing deadline.

In 2012, asylum denials in the immigration courts reached a record low, with 44.5 percent of cases that resulted in deportation, according to Justice Department data. A decade ago, nearly two out of three asylum seekers were denied.

But the immigration court system had a backlog of 321,044 cases last year and the average waiting period for each case was 555 days — both numbers have been steadily increasing since the 90s.

Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York, said a lack of resources for the immigration courts is a big problem.

“One of the big trends in recent years is that more and more cases are being treated informally, outside the court system where there is no due process,” said Kerwin, a former immigration attorney. “There needs to be more resources to the court system, but even in formal removal processes, some people don’t have legal resources so that needs to be addressed as well.”

According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, the government allocates more funding for immigration enforcement agencies like ICE than all other criminal enforcement agencies combined — $18 million in 2012. In a stark contrast, the EOIR under the Department of Justice only requested $2 million in total for the 2013 fiscal year.

Dagadu, whose case lasted almost three years from preparation to final decision, said she would not appeal her withholding of approval status because she’s worn out by the endless legal proceedings and the expensive fees. Meanwhile, she continues to volunteer as a tutor for D.C. kids, intern at a law firm and operate her small cleaning business that became her self-made remedy for her inability to be hired. She is currently in the process of applying to law school.

“There are a lot of people who don’t even have half of what I have,” she said. “I speak English. I have a college education. I fit in really well. But what about the people who don’t? My heart goes out to them, to the people held in detention, separated from their families.”

Changing the System

Last week, Obama said he wants Senate to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in the next three months. It’s a feasible task that lines up with Senate’s own projected timeline. In February, a bipartisan group of eight senators released a framework for reform.

While the framework outlines a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, further immigration enforcement and retention of skilled workers, it does not mention the refugee and asylum system.

“In order for reform to be truly comprehensive, Congress needs to look at every aspect of immigration, including refugees and asylum,” Kerwin said. “They’re going to have to look at the balance of resources and the humaneness of immigration enforcement. And of course, the one-year filing deadline for asylum seekers.”

In the White House proposal for immigration reform, the Obama administration implied support of the elimination of the deadline, saying the reform must “better protect those fleeing persecution by eliminating the existing limitations that prevent qualified individuals from applying for asylum.” Although the Refugee Protection Act failed two years ago, its primary sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has now vowed to ensure the inclusion of refugee protection in the comprehensive immigration bill.

“Senator Leahy knows that any bill that’s truly comprehensive must address the issue of refugees and asylum seekers,” said Jessica Brady from Leahy’s press office.

Dagadu hopes any new immigration reform law will provide a way for her to at least become a permanent resident, and to one day to join the immigration lobbying efforts as a licensed lawyer.

“The beauty of this land provides the opportunity to do and be whatever you want, as long as it’s within the law,” she said. “And I have faith in the law, even after all that I went through. Now I want to make a difference. No able-bodied person should be denied the opportunity to contribute to this country.”