The United States proudly holds itself up as a beacon of freedom and security in an often tumultuous world. Despite its lingering imperfections, few nations are more tolerant of cultural differences or accepting of divergent political viewpoints.
It’s no surprise, then, that the United States is a top destination for people claiming political asylum. But as a sovereign state, the U.S. can’t accommodate everyone who wants to live here — even those who have a legitimate reason for leaving their country of origin. The political asylum process is designed to identify those who face grave, often imminent danger in their current situation. Although every case is unique, this is how a typical asylum claim unfolds.
Qualifying for asylum
There are few affirmative restrictions on who can apply for asylum. The most important thing to remember is that you must apply for asylum within one year of first arriving in the United States and must be physically located in the U.S. when you initiate the application. Unless you’ve previously applied for asylum, been rejected and subsequently deported, you’re permitted to apply for asylum while in the U.S. illegally. Your immigration status will have no bearing on whether your application is accepted or rejected.
Placing your application
To formally apply for asylum, you need to fill out Form I-589, which is provided by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service. Once complete, return the form to the nearest USCIS Asylum Center. There are eight Asylum Centers, one each in D.C., New York, Newark, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Background check and interview
As USCIS processes your application, you’ll be fingerprinted and subjected to a thorough background check, typically at a local law enforcement office. Within 21 days of lodging your application, USCIS will schedule a formal asylum interview, which covers your reasons for applying for asylum and evaluates the potential threat to your person and/or family should you be forced to return home. You’ll need to complete the interview in person, either at one of the eight main Asylum Centers or at a more convenient satellite office.
Decision and next steps
After a thorough review, your application will be approved or denied based on the results of the interview, background/security check and other factors. The entire process typically takes 60 days from the date you submit your completed application. If your application is approved, you’ll be given instructions on how to apply for permanent residency and work authorization. Some law firms provide pro bono legal help to those denied asylum.
Asylum is just the beginning
Successfully completing the political asylum process is worth celebrating. But it’s just the first leg of a yearslong journey toward integrating into — and eventually prospering in — an unfamiliar country, whether from a home base in a pleasant Midwestern suburb or a bustling urban core. The success or failure of this longer journey depends on many factors, including the asylum-seeker’s willingness to work hard and follow the rules, his or her community’s willingness to provide support, and the country’s overall tolerance and acceptance of those who come here to make a better life. It might sound corny, but we really are all in this together.