One of the biggest challenges in applying for asylum in the U.S. is proving that you were, in fact, persecuted or you reasonably fear that you might be persecuted in the future. You can’t just say “I was persecuted” or "I'm afraid" and expect to obtain the right to remain in the United States as an asylee (which leads ultimately to a green card or lawful permanent residence).
Yet you probably didn’t come to the U.S. with a lot of documents to prove what happened, if indeed any such documents exist.
Plenty of applicants have submitted fraudulent applications for asylum over the years, and the U.S. authorities know it. So, although they understand the plight of people truly fleeing persecution, they’re also on the lookout for those who have just written up a fake story, or memorized a story that a friend told them.
The result is that you’ll need to carefully prepare your own story in writing, and be ready to answer questions about it orally (before an asylum officer and, if that fails, before a U.S. immigration judge and defense attorney); and also supply as much corroborating evidence as possible.
Succeeding with your asylum application will depend a great deal on your own ability to put forth a detailed, compelling story of what occurred, including names, dates, places, and other details.
For starters, you’ll need to write all this down, to accompany your application for asylum. When a lawyer helps a client prepare an asylum case, he or she doesn’t rely only on the small-ish spaces on Form I-589, but instead prepares a document, often several pages long, that tells the applicant’s full, detailed story.
Whether you do this on your own or with a lawyer, pay close attention to the details. If you later discover that you were wrong, or you come up with different information when being questioned personally, the immigration examiners might start doubting your credibility or ability to tell the truth.
You’ll probably need to read over your statement several times in preparation for your asylum interview or court hearing. Even someone telling the truth might experience memory lapses, or have trouble remembering dates. Write down the dates when everything you’re talking about happened, and double check against any forms of evidence you might have, such as calendars, letters or emails from friends, and store receipts. Then read your statement several times to refresh your memory, and test yourself on specific dates.
Also realize that the hearing officer or judge deciding your case is allowed to take into account your demeanor when testifying, as well as any previous statements you made while not under oath. This can create problems for people who, for example, have been culturally trained not to look anyone in the eye. Looking someone straight in the eye is, in the U.S., considered a sign of honesty, and the officer judge might interpret looking at your hands or at the floor as a sign that you’re lying.
If you are a woman and feel uncomfortable talking about certain elements of your persecution in front of a man, you can request a female asylum officer (but not a female immigration judge).
If you underwent torture or suffered other medical or psychological stress, it might help to get a written evaluation by a doctor who is trained in this area and can verify that you suffer from the effects of these things. The doctor might also be able to explain why you appear shy or hesitant when telling your story.
Due to a relatively new development in U.S. asylum law, based on the 2005 REAL ID Act, you are required to at least attempt to obtain corroborating evidence of your persecution. (See 8 U.S.C. § 1158.)
The ideal, of course, is personal documentation, for example if you received a threatening letter, have photos of the persecution, or can supply copies of doctors’ reports (from your home country) describing what happened to you or newspaper articles describing something that you lived through.
Most people, however, must provide less direct evidence. For example, if someone was persecuted as a union member, then he or she might provide a copy of a membership card plus independent accounts of the persecution faced by other members of that union.
A good asylum application is accompanied by a thick stack of newspaper clippings, human rights reports, and more, all containing information about the kind of human rights violation you’re describing. If, for example, you fled because local government officials were threatening to imprison you because you sent a letter to the editor protesting a political matter, you’d need to provide evidence that others who expressed similar political opinions have been imprisoned or threatened with prison. (And you'd definitely want to produce a copy of the newspaper's printing of your letter.)
If you were physically harmed in a way that left physical or psychological scars or other lasting damage, then it can also help to visit a doctor in the U.S. and get a report analyzing what the doctor believes happened to you.
These are just a few ways to get corroborating evidence. Each person’s case is different, so you’ll want to think creatively about what documents you can provide that will convince the decision-maker in your case.
Preparing an application for asylum, and preparing to testify, are not easy tasks. For best results, you should hire an experienced immigration attorney to help. See What Immigration Lawyers Report About Their Fees and Free Consultations and check with local nonprofit (charitable) organizations about volunteer or reduced-free lawyers.