Can You Request Asylum at a U.S. Border or Entry Point?

When and how to request asylum before having actually entered the U.S. with a visa at a border, airport, or other entry point.

If you can get a visa to come to the United States, such as a tourist visa, or if you can make your way to a U.S. border post, you can theoretically apply for asylum immediately upon your arrival at the airport, seaport, or border station. (It’s impossible to apply from asylum from a country outside the United States.)

In terms of procedure, you would first tell the inspections officer that you fear returning to your country and that you wish to apply for asylum. If you convince the officer of your fear, you should be given what’s called a “credible fear interview” with a trained asylum officer. If that goes well, you’ll be allowed to apply for asylum, either while in detention or after release on bond.

But should an asylum seeker take this approach?

Risks When Applying for Asylum at a Border Post or Other Entry Point

If at all possible, it’s best to wait, and not to mention your intent to seek asylum upon entry -- unless, that is, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer is acting like he or she doesn’t plan to let you into the U.S. anyway.

If you start the application process immediately upon your arrival, your ability to continue it depends entirely on whether one CBP officer finds your fear "credible." That officer has the power to quickly find you inadmissible and deport you, in which case you might not be allowed to return for five years. This can happen if an inspector not only believes that is your fear not credible, but also that you are making a misrepresentation (committing fraud), or that you misrepresented the truth when you got your visa, or if you do not have the proper travel or visa documents at the time you request entry.

This quick deportation procedure is known as “expedited removal.”

An added problem may arise if you come to the southern U.S. border. You might be affected by the “zero-tolerance” policy for unlawful immigration that the Trump Administration instituted in early 2018. Reports have surfaced that asylum seekers who hadn’t even crossed the border yet, but merely approached an official point of entry, were placed into detention as supposedly unlawful migrants and separated from their children.

If the CBP officer allows you to move forward with your asylum request, you’ll have very little time in which to find a lawyer or prepare your written application and testimony. Finding lawyers who serve areas near the U.S. border is extremely difficult, and the few who do work in that area are overwhelmed with clients.

People With Visas or Other Entry Documents Can Wait Until They're in the U.S. to Apply for Asylum

If the border inspections officer allows you into the U.S. on a visa or other entry document (without your having requested asylum yet), then the way to apply for asylum is to mail in an application, with supporting documentation, on Form I-589. You'll have a year from your entry date to do this. The form and instructions are available for free download on the USCIS website (www.uscis.gov). Also see Asylum or Refugee Status: How to Apply.

However, if at all possible, you should get help from an attorney. Applying for asylum is a complex process. You must prove not only your fear of what might happen to you upon returning to your home country, but that you were persecuted based on one of five recognized grounds (race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or particular social group), and that you yourself are not barred from the U.S. due to past crimes, persecution of others, resettlement in a third country, and so forth.

A good asylum application is accompanied by things like news clippings showing conditions in the home country, medical or psychiatric reports, affidavits from witnesses or experts, and more. An attorney can help with all that (and you may be able to find one who volunteers some or all of his or her time.)

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