What Is Asylum and How Does It Work?

In a Nutshell

If you are in the U.S. and you can show you’ll be persecuted if you return to your home country, you can ask to remain in the United States by requesting asylum. This requires you, the asylum seeker, to show that you meet the definition of a refugee. There are three ways to apply for asylum: affirmatively, defensively (during a deportation proceeding), or with an Asylum Merits Interview after a positive credible fear determination.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Updated September 26, 2023

What Is Asylum?

Asylees are those who have left their home countries to find safety in the United States. To be eligible for asylum, the U.S. government must agree that you would face the fear of persecution if you returned home. 

Asylees often face persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This persecution makes life in an asylee’s country of origin extremely difficult or dangerous.

Asylum status offers recipients a pathway to U.S. citizenship. While you may be eligible for other immigration benefits, such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), asylum status can offer more secure and long-term relief from persecution.

How Long Does Asylum Last?

Asylum lasts indefinitely. As long as your basis for receiving asylum status continues to exist and you have not done anything to jeopardize your immigration status, you remain eligible for asylum. 

If you develop a criminal record or meet grounds for inadmissibility, you may lose your status. And if conditions become safer in your country of origin, the U.S. government may remove your asylum status.

Although the U.S. government may consider your home country safe to return to, you may have reservations about going back. So it’s important to apply for and secure a U.S. green card as soon as possible while you have asylum status. 

You become eligible to apply for a green card after one year as an asylee. If you believe you would be uncomfortable returning to your home country at some point, be sure to initiate the green card process as early as you can.

What Is the Difference Between Asylum and Refugee Status?

Asylees are very similar to refugees. The main difference is that refugees apply for permission to enter the United States while still abroad, and asylum seekers request protection after they are present in the U.S.

If you are already physically in the United States or at a U.S. port of entry, you are an asylee instead of a refugee. Besides the location from which you apply, your eligibility for either status will depend on your ability to prove persecution occurred in your home country.

How Do You Apply for Asylum?

There are three ways you can seek asylum in the United States: 

  1. Affirmatively

  2. Defensively

  3. Through an Asylum Merits Interview

Note that even if you entered the United States illegally, you may apply for asylum. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will still review your application. To apply for asylum, you’ll need to submit paperwork and evidence proving you are eligible for protection under U.S. immigration law.

The CLP rule, created by the Biden administration, prevents some people from receiving asylum, depending on how they entered the U.S. The East Bay Sanctuary Covenant filed a challenge but while that challenge is under review, the CLP rule remains in effect. You can find the latest information about this in the news update portion on the USCIS webpage for refugees and asylum.

How Do You Apply for Asylum Affirmatively?

You can apply for asylum affirmatively if you are not currently involved in removal proceedings and you apply with USCIS. To apply affirmatively, you’ll need to file Form I-589, attend a biometrics appointment, and interview with a USCIS officer.

Step 1: Complete Form I-589

First, you’ll need to file Form I-589: Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal. Be sure to file this form within one year of arriving in the United States. 

When you file this form, provide as much detail and documentation as possible. Remember that you’ll need to prove your application is truthful. Supporting documents help verify your background story, which helps you backup your asylum claim.

Once you fill out the form, mail it to USCIS. The correct mailing address will depend on your location and method of sending. You should review the USCIS website for more detailed information on mailing addresses

Throughout the filing process, you’ll be able to check your case status on the USCIS website. ImmigrationHelp also tracks the latest processing times.

Once USCIS receives your application, it will also send you a confirmation receipt. The agency will then tell you to complete your biometrics appointment at your nearest application support center (ASC).

Step 2: Attend the Biometrics Appointment

Your next step is to attend your biometrics appointment. USCIS uses biometrics appointments to gather your fingerprints, photograph, and signature. It will cross-reference this information with other U.S. government databases to check for any criminal associations. 

At your appointment, a USCIS official will help you submit your biometrics information on machines. When you provide your signature, you will also be attesting that all of the information in your application is accurate.

If your dependent spouse or children are applying for asylum along with you, they should also join you for your biometrics appointment. Unlike most other immigrants applying for statuses in the United States, asylum seekers do not need to pay any fees for fingerprinting.

Step 3: Attend the Asylum Interview

After the biometrics appointment, you will complete an asylum interview. USCIS will schedule this interview for you, either at a nearby USCIS asylum office or a field office. USCIS classifies applicants and manages application backlogs based on different priority levels. Your priority level will determine how soon you can interview with USCIS.

During your interview, the interviewer will ask you questions about your application. Remember that they are assessing your asylum eligibility based on whether you have a reason to fear persecution in your home country. 

Come to your interview prepared. Memorize all relevant information to help prove your case, including any names, dates, and other details you wrote on your application. Be sure that there are no inconsistencies between your written application and your interview responses. Inconsistencies can harm your credibility. Always be truthful and explain your answers as best you can.

You should bring your dependent family members to the interview. If you cannot complete the interview in English, also bring an interpreter with you. Note that this interview is different from the Asylum Merits Interview, to be discussed in more detail later.

Step 4: Await a Decision

Most asylum decisions are made sometime after the interview, not on the same day. Your interviewer will review your answers and written application to assess your case

After your interview, they will determine whether:

  • You are eligible to apply for asylum.

  • You meet the refugee definition outlined in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

  • You are not barred from asylum status under the INA.

You should expect to hear back about two weeks after your interview. You may face longer processing times if you interviewed at a field office, have any pending security checks, have valid immigration status, or have a case reviewed at USCIS’s headquarters.

Affirmative Asylum Decisions

USCIS issues a wide variety of application decisions, including:

  • Granting asylum.

  • Referring your case to an immigration court, meaning an immigration judge will decide your case independently.

  • Sending your application to an immigration court. This outcome occurs when you have a pending Notice to Appear. USCIS will forward your application to the immigration court that has jurisdiction over your asylum status decision.

  • Issuing a Notice of Intent to Deny. USCIS sometimes provides advance notice of its intent to deny your asylum request. However, this notice gives you 16 days to reiterate or provide further evidence that could advance your case. You will receive a final decision after your officer considers this new evidence.

  • Issuing a final denial.

How Do You Apply for Asylum Defensively?

You can apply for asylum defensively if you are currently in removal proceedings and are applying through an immigration judge. If USCIS places you in expedited removal proceedings, you can request to apply for asylum if you can prove you have a fear of being persecuted if you were to return to your home country. 

USCIS will place you in a credible fear interview, where the agency will ask you questions to determine whether you have a genuine fear of facing persecution in your home country.If you pass this interview, USCIS will move forward with your case in one of two ways:

  • Recommend that you move to a second interview known as the Asylum Merits Interview

  • Recommend that you appear before an immigration judge with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR)

If USCIS recommends you appear before the judge, you’ll need to file Form I-589. Once you’ve filed this form, you will have begun the defensive asylum process. If USCIS denied your affirmative application and then placed you in removal proceedings, you can still use the defensive asylum process.

After filing Form I-589, you’ll use your immigration court process to defend your case and explain why you are eligible to receive asylum status. The immigration judge will likely make a decision at the end of your deportation hearing. 

If you’d like to appeal their decision, you can take your case to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) instead.

How Do You Apply for Asylum With an Asylum Merits Interview?

If you passed the credible fear interview, USCIS may recommend that you complete a second interview instead of submitting a defensive application. If USCIS retains your application for asylum or accepts your case, it will schedule an Asylum Merits Interview for you. 

At your interview, a USCIS asylum officer will determine your eligibility for asylum status in the United States. They will determine if your circumstances warrant asylum and whether there is any reason you might not be eligible for it. They will also assess whether you ought to be exempt from removal.

Instead of filing Form I-589, your positive credible fear determination becomes the basis of your asylum application. You can also include eligible dependents on your asylum application. You may include your spouse and unmarried minor children if they were part of the positive credible fear determination and also have pending asylum applications. Be sure to bring your dependents and attorney or accredited representatives to your Asylum Merits Interview.

If your asylum officer approves you for asylum status, you won’t need to leave the United States. You can also expect to receive a formal approval letter soon. This letter will tell you more about all of the benefits you may receive as an asylee.

How Long Do I Have To Apply for Asylum?

If you are seeking asylum, you should submit your application within one year of entering the United States. USCIS does make exceptions to this timing rule in certain situations, but preparing your application as soon as possible will allow you to access asylum benefits faster. The sooner you hold asylum status, the sooner you’ll also be able to apply for lawful permanent resident status.

In some asylum cases, USCIS will forgive a later application. If you entered the United States with a temporary visa expiring after the one-year asylum deadline passed, you may still be able to apply for asylum if you do so within a reasonable amount of time after your visa expires. In this case, you may want to use Form I-94 to determine when you’ll need to leave the United States. This date can serve as an unofficial deadline for submitting your affirmative asylum application.

It can take a while for USCIS to make a decision on asylum applications. It’s very possible that your original temporary visa or other immigration status may expire while your asylee status application is still pending. Luckily, USCIS allows asylum applicants to remain in the United States as they wait for a decision on their application.