HIAS has historically protected those fleeing violence, persecution and torture, defending them against deportation by securing humanitarian legal status and keeping families united through reunification. As access to protection is increasingly restricted for asylum seekers, HIAS’ U.S. legal program seeks to safeguard and increase their rights upon their arrival to the U.S. and throughout their journey to citizenship.
Who are asylum seekers?
An asylum seeker is someone who has fled persecution in their home country and has applied for protection, but has not yet received any legal recognition or status. An asylum seeker, like a refugee, faces well-founded fears of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership in a particular social group.
Asylum seekers begin the asylum process once they arrive in the United States, whereas refugees are resettled by the U.S. government and arrive in the U.S. with already established refugee status.
Some asylum seekers arrive on a variety of visas and then claim asylum, and others present themselves to authorities at ports of entry, like an airport or the southern border, in order to claim asylum.
How many asylum seekers are there in the U.S.?
As of 2016, the United States is the second-largest recipient of new asylum applications worldwide. A 52 percent increase over the previous year, over half of the 262,000 applicants were people from Mexico and Central America. In 2015, 40% of those who were granted asylum hailed from, China, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
In 2017, the U.S. immigration court and asylum systems were backlogged with more than 630,000 cases pending.
In fiscal year 2015, the United States granted asylum to 26,124 individuals, a 12% increase from fiscal year 2014. There were a total of 65,218 asylum cases in immigration courts in fiscal year 2016, representing a 35% increase from fiscal year 2012.
How does one seek asylum in the United States?
An asylum seeker has two routes to request asylum in the United States: an affirmative claim or a defensive claim. Affirmative asylum is when an applicant submits a request with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer after arriving to the United States, but only if the person has never been apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for violations of immigration law. An affirmative application will be adjudicated during an interview with an asylum officer at USCIS. Affirmative wait times have changed; those applying most recently receive interviews first, and those who have been waiting already since 2014 will be interviewed last, in the new “first in first out” policy.
The process can take anywhere from two to eight years, and asylum applicants do not receive government support and are ineligible to work at least for the first five months in the United States. Once an asylum seeker’s case has been pending for 150 days, they can apply for work authorization. The application process for work authorization can take another three months, though at times, has taken nearly one year. Once an asylum seeker receives work authorization, they are eligible to apply for a social security number.
If an affirmative application is not granted by the asylum office, the case is referred to the immigration court for removal proceedings. There, the applicant will have another opportunity to present their case to an immigration judge in adversarial proceedings. The government does not provide an attorney, so most applicants represent themselves with very little knowledge of the complexity of immigration laws.
What happens next?
In recent years, noncitizens who ask for asylum at our Southern border are typically placed in expedited removal proceedings, an accelerated process that allows the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to perform rapid deportations without the opportunity to see a judge. Even those asylum seekers who arrive at airports with valid visas for temporary admittance have their visas cancelled and are placed in this same process. It is at this moment that DHS officials are required to ask if the noncitizen is afraid to return to their country. If the noncitizen says ‘yes,’ they are supposed to be scheduled for a credible fear interview with an asylum officer. If the officer finds that there is a ‘significant possibility’ that the noncitizen could qualify for asylum, the noncitizen is placed in removal proceedings before the immigration court where, in two to five years, the noncitizen will have a trial on the merits of their case. This is called a defensive asylum application.
During the adjudication of both affirmative and defensive asylum applications, asylum seekers undergo an extensive series of background checks, by U.S. security agencies: the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State, among others. These include fingerprinting, travel history, and a review of biographical information. If an individual is found to have: persecuted others, been convicted of a serious crime in the U.S. or abroad, engaged in terrorist activities or supported any terrorist group in any way, or pose any security threats to the United States, they are not eligible for asylum. In addition, even if an asylum seeker qualifies under the law for asylum, they can still be denied under the discretion of the immigration judge.
What happens when someone is granted asylum?
Asylum grants in the United States vary drastically by jurisdiction and judge, ranging from a 97% grant rate to a 0% grant rate from 2012-2016.
If an asylum seeker is eventually granted asylum status, they may be eligible for some state and federal benefits, as well as the right to petition for immediate family members abroad or in the United States.
After one year, asylees may apply for a green card (lawful permanent resident status). Once that is granted, they must wait four years to apply for citizenship. Neither residency nor citizenship is guaranteed; at either point in the process, the asylee can still face deportation. In other words, the only safe immigration status is U.S. citizenship.