How to Get Asylum In The U.S.

A basic overview of the process to apply for and get political asylum in the United States.

If you are currently in the United States and have experienced persecution in your home country, or have a well-founded fear of persecution should you return there, you may want to apply for asylum. Asylum is a form of humanitarian relief that allows you to stay in the United States until it is safe to return home.

If you wish (and if you still qualify for asylum), you may apply for U.S. lawful permanent residence (a green card) one year or more after the approval of your request for asylum.

One caution, however: Don’t file a frivolous application for asylum, meaning one that has no real basis. For example, some people have been known to “borrow” someone else’s story of persecution in an effort to gain status in the United States. If you do this, and you are caught, you will never be granted any other sort of U.S. visa or green card.

What Types of Persecution Qualify a Person for Asylum?

Persecution can include various severe form of discrimination, harassment, beatings, torture, unjust arrest or imprisonment, or other type of harm. The persecution that you faced, or your well-founded fear of future persecution, must either come from your country’s government or from forces beyond the government’s control (such as vigilante squads or guerrilla groups).

In addition, the persecution must be based on one of five grounds, including either your:

  • religion
  • race
  • nationality
  • political opinion, or
  • membership in a particular social group.

Persecution based on any other ground does not qualify for asylum. For example, someone might fear returning to his or her home country because an angry neighbor has threatened to take revenge over an old grudge, but that would not qualify the person for asylum.

A more classic asylum case would be that of someone who was arrested or threatened after participating in demonstrations against the government; was forcibly recruited into the country's military; was a victim of violence by another tribe; or experienced discrimination as a result of religion.

The Written Application for Asylum

The first thing to pay attention to is the deadline for applying for asylum, which is within one year of entering the United States or of your visa running out (if you had one). If you entered the United States illegally, that is not a bar to applying for asylum.

If more than a year has already passed, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may make an exception for you and allow you to apply, but you would want to talk to an attorney about this.

Your next step will be to fill out USCIS Form I-589, available on the USCIS website. There is no filing fee for this form. You’ll send it in by mail.

However, the form is only a small part of the written application process. It’s especially important that you submit documents proving who you are, how you were persecuted in the past, or why you might be persecuted upon return. The more personal the documents, the better. For example, if you could come up with a document showing your church membership, a photo of you in the newspaper being beaten by members of another religion, and a doctor’s report describing the extent of your injuries, those would be ideal. However, most people aren’t able to come up with such convincing documents.

That’s why it’s also important to collect documents that more generally show the conditions you are describing in your country. For example, reports by human rights organizations, affidavits by experts, and newspaper reports describing persecution faced by people who are in a similar situation to yours are all fine forms of documentation. Your testimony at your asylum interview (described below) will also be very important. Sometimes, a person's entire case rests upon their ability to convincingly tell their story of persecution.

The Asylum Interview

Some weeks after submitting your Form I-589, you will be called in to a local USCIS office for an interview about your asylum application. If you do not speak English, you’ll need to bring a translator with you.

The asylum officer will ask you questions about the information on your application and your fear of persecution. You should carefully study all names, dates, and facts stated on your application before you go in for this interview. Any inconsistencies between your written and spoken testimony may be taken as a sign that you are not telling the truth. The interviewer may also ask you about things that are not on your application, for example to establish that you are really from a certain country, or were really a member of a certain group there.

The officer will not make a decision on your application that day, but will have you come back on a future day to receive the decision in writing from the person at the front desk.

What Happens If Your Asylum Application Is Denied

If your application for asylum is denied, your case will (unless you’re still in valid visa status) be referred to immigration court for removal proceedings. There, you will be allowed to present your entire case over again before an immigration judge. You’ll be able to add any additional documents that you like, call witnesses, and present your own testimony (as well as undergo cross examination by the lawyer for the U.S. government).  Such hearings can go on for several hours, including postponements to different days.

At the end of the hearing, the immigration judge will issue a decision in your case. If that decision is negative, you can appeal your case to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), then to a federal circuit court, and even to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, you will have to pay for your own lawyer throughout this process.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

It is wise to get a lawyer to represent you from the beginning in your request for asylum. The application process depends upon gathering a number of convincing documents and preparing to testify, all of which a lawyer will help you with.

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