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. HIAS represents asylum seekers in removal proceedings before the immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals, and at the asylum office before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that administers the country's naturalization and immigration systems.

Who are asylum seekers?

Asylum is a protection granted to people fleeing persecution in their home country who are already in the U.S. or at the border and who meet the international definition of a “refugee.” An asylum seeker is someone who 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 U.S., 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. Both approaches are legal.

Asylum seekers must apply for asylum within one year of arriving in the U.S.; if they don’t, they risk losing eligibility for asylum.

How does one seek asylum in the United States?

An asylum seeker has two routes to request asylum in the U.S.: an affirmative claim (for those not in removal proceedings) or a defensive claim (for those who are in removal proceedings). All asylum seekers who present themselves at a port of entry are detained. Many remain in detention throughout their asylum proceedings.

The process can take anywhere from six weeks to five 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.

Asylum seekers are left in limbo while their case is pending. As of March 2018 there were more than 318,000 affirmative asylum applications pending with USCIS. According to Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration database, the backlog in U.S. immigration courts reached an all-time high in September 2018, with 768,257 open deportation cases.

What happens when someone is granted asylum?

Asylum grants in the U.S. vary drastically by jurisdiction and judge, and it also depends on the asylees’ nationality and whether they are represented by an attorney. For example, the New York grant rate is 83 percent, while in El Paso it is as low as 3 percent.

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 U.S.

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.


See the Legal Services page for more information.