Dyluis Rojas and his wife and children fled first from Venezuela and later from Colombia and Chile, crossing deserts, jungles and rivers with one goal: to make it to the United States and stay there.
The family arrived in June 2022. Less than a year and a half later, they were elated when they received news that their asylum application had been approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, one of the federal agencies that processes immigration matters. Mr. Rojas and his wife could soon begin to work. They would eventually be able to apply for green cards.
Then, a few days later, another letter arrived, with the same date and signed by the same official. It said that Mr. Rojas’s asylum claim had been deemed “not credible” and that he had not been granted asylum. The family faced the possibility of deportation.
“We were at zero all over again,” Mr. Rojas said.
It is unclear why two opposing notices were issued and which one will stand. Immigration lawyers said that Mr. Rojas’s situation seemed highly unusual, but that miscommunication by and within government agencies was not uncommon. Now, the family is waiting again, uncertain about their fate.
The contradictory letters shine a spotlight on a system that is badly overwhelmed as an influx of migrants crossing into the United States continues.
Thousands of people are arriving by the day, their hopes pinned on a teetering immigration bureaucracy that has received record numbers of asylum applications in the last two years. There is now a backlog of two million asylum cases, according to data from U.S.C.I.S. and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
Asylum applicants must submit their claims within one year of arriving in the United States, but most migrants lack the know-how and resources to do so. Applications are filed to two separate federal entities: U.S.C.I.S., under the Homeland Security Department, and immigration court, which is part of the Justice Department.
Asylum seekers can wait years to receive a decision, with wait times and approval rates varying by U.S. region and applicants’ nationalities, among other factors. In courts across the country, the estimated average wait for an asylum hearing is now 1,429 days, according to TRAC.
At U.S.C.I.S., the processing time is approaching a decade.
A U.S.C.I.S. official said the agency does not comment on individual immigration cases. The official said U.S.C.I.S. evaluates each case fairly and humanely and that it was putting resources toward reducing backlogs.
Understaffed government agencies are playing a perpetual game of catch-up and sometimes crossing wires, leaving the lives of migrants like Mr. Rojas hanging in the balance.
The situation only stands to get worse. Crossings at the southern border have risen to record highs under President Biden. The Border Patrol has apprehended as many as 10,000 people in a single day in recent weeks. More than 160,000 migrants, many of them Venezuelan, have come to New York City since the spring of 2022, and some 70,000 remain in the city’s care.
The crisis has been a difficult test for Mayor Eric Adams of New York, who has implored federal officials to ease the burden on big cities by providing more funding but also by expediting work permits and helping more people apply for asylum, one of the few routes to being able to work legally.
The city opened an asylum help center in June. As of last week, the city had helped migrants file over 25,000 applications, including for temporary protected status, work authorizations and asylum; of those, more than 8,100 were asylum cases. It is unclear if any of those people have been granted asylum.
Anecdotally, immigration lawyers say that some migrants who arrived in New York in the last two years have received decisions on their asylum cases, but that the vast majority of those cases are still pending.
The lengthy timeline was one reason Mr. Rojas and his wife, Grisy Oropeza, were surprised and overjoyed to receive a notice of approval only four months after they applied.
“Words did not come,” Mr. Rojas recalled recently of the day he received the news. “We were in shock.”
A TV news crew recorded as someone from a community group explained the letter’s meaning. Mr. Rojas and Ms. Oropeza wiped away tears.
“The dream begins today,” Ana Maldonado-Alfonzo, the paralegal who helped them apply, said then.
Mr. Rojas’s asylum claim said that officials under Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, had sought to extort money from the small store he and his wife ran out of their home. In his application, Mr. Rojas said he had been beaten and imprisoned when he refused to pay, and that he continued to receive death threats after he was released.
Eventually, after trying to make a living in Colombia and Chile, where they said they faced xenophobia, the family, including a 5-month-old baby, began a monthslong journey to the United States. They didn’t have an exact destination in mind, but they had heard a lot about New York and knew someone there. Officials bused them from the border to Washington, Mr. Rojas said, and from there they made their way north.
Desperate to work, they applied for asylum in June 2023.
“To arrive here, get a job, be established with the kids, have a better life for them — that was the hope,” Ms. Oropeza said.
Once in a family shelter in Brooklyn, they began to create some stability. The older children started school, where bilingual teachers and Spanish-speaking friends helped them acclimate. With donated clothes they weathered their first winter.
In October, they received the notice of asylum approval. Then came the rejection letter. In November, without being given a reason, the family was moved to a shelter in a Queens hotel, more than an hour’s commute to the children’s school in Brooklyn.
The family is scheduled to appear in immigration court this week, a step that ManoLasya Perepa, government relations policy counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, called “a huge waste of time.”
“Whoever made the initial findings that they are approved for asylum felt that the family, by law, met their burden of proof,” she said.
Ms. Perepa said that “inefficiencies and mismanagement and redundancies” like those that appear to have occurred in this case are what cause the immigration system “to be so sluggish and unfair.”
Jose Perez, an immigration lawyer who is representing Mr. Rojas and his family for free, said the best outcome would be for their court case to be dismissed and for U.S.C.I.S. to issue a final decision on the original asylum claim. Otherwise, the family could remain in limbo for years.
Ms. Oropeza said she felt she’d had a dream taken away in an instant. “One goes through so much to get here,” she said. “To get here and not know your destiny, to be still on that journey — it’s depressing.”