What is Asylum?

For the past several years, we’ve been hearing about asylum in the news –especially asylum seekers crossing the border from Mexico into the United States.

Asylum is a legal process that allows someone who feels their life is in danger to seek refuge in safer countries.  Under U.S. and international law, a person who reaches any U.S. border “with well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence,” may apply for asylum.


A refugee and an asylum seeker differ in that an asylum seeker makes their claim after they have stepped foot onto the country where they are seeking refuge, whereas a refugee is granted status while still outside that country.

Once a migrant applies for asylum, they begin a process to prove they have a “credible fear” of returning to their country of origin.

The U.S. Asylum Process

Once a migrant fleeing persecution reaches the U.S., they can apply for asylum and begin the process.

The asylum process generally begins with the applicant filing a detailed and lengthy application and submitting it with their photograph and fingerprints.  If the asylum seeker entered the U.S. with a valid visa, they then interview with an asylum officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and the asylum seeker provides evidence to establish that they have been or will be persecuted if they return to their country of origin.  The asylum seeker is either granted asylum or denied. If denied, the asylum seeker can appeal through immigration court.

If a migrant seeks asylum after entering the U.S. without prior documentation, they are detained, and they file the asylum application with their photograph and fingerprints.  They then undergo an initial “credible fear” interview, where the asylum seeker establishes that they have a legitimate fear of returning to their country of origin.  If they are deemed to have a “credible fear” of returning, the asylum seeker either remains detained or is paroled to wait for their hearing in immigration court, which will grant or deny them asylum.

Asylum seekers are not entitled to legal representation, so those who are unable to find or afford an attorney must navigate the long and confusing process on their own.  In FY 2017, 20 percent of asylum seekers did not have representation, even though those with representation were five times more likely to win their asylum cases.

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