How to Get Asylum in the U.S.

The affirmative asylum application process, for people not already in removal proceedings.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

If you are currently within the United States and have experienced persecution in your home country, or have a well-founded fear of persecution should you return there, you might want to apply for asylum. Asylum is a form of humanitarian relief that allows you to stay and work in the United States until it is safe to return home. (See 8 U.S.C. § 1158.) It can lead to a green card (lawful permanent residence) and eventually to U.S. citizenship.

Cautions Regarding Filing Form I-589 for Asylum

This article assumes that you're not already in deportation (removal) proceedings, and have not been ordered deported by an immigration judge. It discusses what's called the "affirmative" application process for asylum. If you're already in deportation proceedings, you might still be able to apply for asylum, but will do best with a lawyer's help.

Two additional cautions:

  • You might need to act quickly. There's a one-year deadline on applying, as described below.
  • You should never file a frivolous application for asylum, meaning one that has no actual basis in reality. 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.

Asylum Can Lead to Permanent Residence and Citizenship

If you wish to (and if you still qualify for asylum at the time), you may apply for U.S. lawful permanent residence (a green card) one year or more after the approval of your request for asylum. Then a few years later, you may apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship.

What Types of Persecution Qualify a Person for Asylum?

Persecution can include various severe forms of discrimination, harassment, beatings, torture, unjust arrest or imprisonment, or other type of harm. The persecution that you faced in the past, 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. This can be a major disqualifier for asylum. For example, someone might fear returning to the 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.

Written Application for Asylum: Form I-589

The first thing to pay attention to is the deadline for applying for asylum, which is within one year from when you entered the United States or when your permitted stay under a visa/I-94 ran 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 since your entry or status-expiration, 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 for free on the USCIS website. Be sure to fill out Form I-589 honestly and carefully, using the supplement page at the end to supply an extensive statement detailing your experiences and fears.

However, the I-589 form is only a small part of the written application process. It's especially important that you submit documents proving who you are and how you were persecuted in the past or why you might be persecuted upon return. The more personal to you the documents are, 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 specific documents.

That's why it's also important to collect documents that more broadly show the conditions you are describing in your country. For example, reports by human rights organizations or non-governmental organization (NGOs), 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.

You'll submit the application form and supporting materials either by mail or online (after setting up a USCIS account).

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.

Attending the Asylum Interview

Some weeks after submitting your Form I-589 to USCIS, 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 an interpreter with you.

The asylum officer will ask you about the information on your application and your fear of persecution. Before you arrive, carefully study all names, dates, and facts stated on your application. Any inconsistencies between your written and spoken testimony can be taken as a sign that you are not telling the truth.

The interviewer might 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 religion or group there.

The officer will not make a decision on your application that day, but will either mail it to you or 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 additional documents, call witnesses, and present your own oral 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 later days.

At the end of the hearing or soon after, the immigration judge will issue a decision in your case (either orally at the end of the hearing or in writing later). If that decision is negative, you can appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals (B.I.A.), 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 to Apply for Asylum?

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. Fortunately, various charitable organizations might be able to line you up with a free (pro bono) or low-cost lawyer.

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