What is the United States Asylum Program and Who Benefits?

Asylum may be granted to people who are already in the United States and are unable or unwilling to return their home country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. If you are granted asylum, you will be allowed to live and work in the United States. You also will be able to apply for permanent resident status one year after you are granted asylum. You may include your spouse and any unmarried children under the age of 21 in your own asylum application if your spouse or children are in the United States.

Asylum status and refugee status are closely related. They differ only in the place where a person asks for the status asylum is asked for in the United States; refugee status is asked for outside of the United States. However, all people who are granted asylum must meet the definition of a refugee. If you do not qualify for asylum, but fear being tortured upon returning to your homeland, you can apply for consideration under the Torture Convention .

What Does the Law Say?

The legal foundation for this program comes from the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). For the part of the law concerning Asylum, please see INA § 208 (Asylum). Rules published in the Federal Register explain the eligibility requirements and procedures to be followed by applicants and the government to ask for and decide on asylum. These rules are incorporated into the Code of Federal Regulations [CFR] at 8 CFR § 208.

Who is Eligible?

To be eligible for asylum in the United States, you must ask for asylum at a port-of-entry (airport, seaport or border crossing), or file an application within one year of your arrival in the United States. You may ask later than one year if conditions in your country have changed or if your personal circumstances have changed within the past year prior to your asking for asylum, and those changes of circumstances affected your eligibility for asylum. You may also be excused from the one year deadline if extraordinary circumstance prevented you from filing within the one year period after your arrival, so long as you apply within a reasonable time given those circumstances. You may apply for asylum regardless of your immigration status, meaning that you may apply even if you are illegally in the United States.

In addition, you must qualify for asylum under the definition of “refugee.” Your eligibility will be based on information you provide on your application and during an interview with an Asylum Officer or Immigration Judge. If you have been placed in removal (deportation) proceedings in Immigration Court, an Immigration Judge will hear and decide your case. If you have not been placed in removal proceedings and apply with the BCIS, an Asylum Officer will interview you and decide whether you are eligible for asylum. Asylum Officers will grant asylum, deny asylum or refer the case to an Immigration Judge for a final decision.

If an Asylum Officer finds that you are not eligible for asylum and you are in the United States illegally, the Asylum Officer will place you in removal proceedings and refer your application to an Immigration Judge for a final decision. Immigration Judges also decide on removal if an applicant is found ineligible for asylum and is illegally in the United States. If you are in valid immigrant or nonimmigrant status and the Asylum Officer finds that you are not eligible for asylum, the Asylum Officer will send you a notice explaining that the BCIS intends to deny your request for asylum. You will be given an opportunity to respond to that notice before a decision is made on your application.