When President Donald J. Trump took office, immigration became a fiercely debated topic in the United States. In particular, the President’s desire to build a “wall” along the southern border, the separation of families at the southern border, and the detention of some asylum seekers caused not only anger, but confusion. After all, the United Nations Refugee Agency insists that asylum seekers have a legal right to enter the United States. So what is all of this really about?
What does it mean to seek asylum?
Asylum is generally defined as, “a place of retreat and security,” or “shelter.” In the context of U.S. immigration law, it is defined as the protection afforded to people from other countries who: a) have been persecuted in their home country; or b) have valid fear that they will be persecuted in their home country if they go back.
When granted, asylum allows people to stay in the United States until there is no longer a serious threat to their well-being in their country. It also allows them to apply for lawful permanent residency (a Green Card) here.
People who claim they need this kind of protection, and request it from the U.S. government are called asylum seekers. People who receive asylum are called “asylees.”
Who can apply?
To apply for asylum, you must be:
- Physically present in the United States; or
- At a port of entry (such as a border crossing, international airport, seaport, or designated railroad station) manned by U.S. authorities and administrators.
To request asylum you must prove that you experienced persecution in your home country, or that you have a valid fear of being persecuted if you go back. Persecution is generally defined as deliberate and inescapable conduct that jeopardizes the victim’s life or their freedom; or causes significant physical or emotional harm. It is usually (but not always) carried out by the government or authorities (such as the police or military). Examples include:
- Death threats
- Ongoing surveillance
- Certain types of discrimination
- Ongoing violations of privacy
However, it is not enough to say that you have experienced these things in your country before, or that you are afraid it will happen if you are forced to return. You must also prove that the persecution occurred or will happen based on your:
- Political opinion
- Membership in a particular social group
Who cannot request asylum
You may not be allowed to apply for asylum if you: a) did not file your application for asylum within one year of your most recent arrival to the United States*; or b) an Immigration Judge or the Board of Immigration Appeals denied a previous request for asylum; or c) you can be sent to another country where you will be safe under an agreement between the U.S. and one or more countries.
*There are exceptions to this rule. For more information, see our page, Common Questions About Asylum | Rights of Asylum Seekers.
How to apply
To request asylum in the United States in most cases, you must complete Form I-589, Application for Asylum and Withholding of Removal in writing, and submit it, along with all required supporting information to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). You must also go through fingerprint and background checks; and go to an Asylum Interview at a USCIS office. That’s where an asylum officer will ask for detailed information about your request for asylum based on your written application and supporting documents. They asylum officer will also tell you when to come back to the USCIS office to learn whether you have been granted asylum.
Types of asylum application
The application process described above is called the affirmative asylum process. This is the process used when an applicant is already in the United States and is not subject to removal (deportation).
If your initial request for asylum is denied, or you are subject to deportation or removal from the United States for any other reason, you must apply for asylum through the defensive asylum process. In this situation, you must present your request for asylum and supporting evidence to an immigration judge. If the judge denies your request, you can appeal the decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals.
How long does the asylum application process take?
USCIS says most affirmative asylum applicants should get a decision within 180 days (six months) after filing the application unless there are “exceptional circumstances.” However, backlogs in processing affirmative asylum applications, and backlogs in U.S. immigration courts can result in considerable delays, meaning some applicants are left in limbo for years.