Deciding whether to apply for asylum in the United States

Last updated on April 26, 2021

Applying for asylum is a personal choice. It may also be a complicated decision depending on your situation. In addition, immigration and asylum laws are complex and frequently change. As a result, in many cases, it will be best to speak with an attorney about this decision. If you would like legal assistance, visit our find help page.

Here are answers to some questions you may have about the decision to apply for asylum. This information is intended for people who are already in the United States, and it is not a substitute for legal advice about your particular case.


Q: What is asylum?

Asylum is a form of immigration status for people who have come to the United States and are afraid to return to their country of origin. The United States government cannot deport people who have asylum (also known as “asylees”).

To win asylum, you must show all of the following:

  • that you have been harmed or have good reason to believe that you will be harmed in your country of origin;
  • that this harm is because of a specific characteristic like your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or something else about you that you cannot change or should not have to change;
  • that the government of your country of origin will cause this harm, or that the government will be unwilling or unable to protect you from this harm; and
  • that you cannot relocate to another part of your country and be safe.

Q: Who can apply for asylum?

In most cases, you can only apply for asylum within one year of when you entered the United States. However, you may be able to apply after a year in some circumstances. The government also prohibits people from getting asylum if they have certain kinds of criminal convictions, or if they have applied for asylum in the United States before and been denied.

People who have received a deportation order in the past are also often not eligible for asylum. However, these people can still apply for similar forms of protection under U.S. immigration law, such as withholding of removal and protection under the Convention Against Torture (“CAT”).

For more information about who is eligible for asylum, please see page 4 of this guide (under the section “C. Who is Eligible for Asylum?”).


Q: What are the possible benefits of applying for asylum?

The main benefit of applying for asylum in the United States is that you could eventually win asylum!

If you win asylum:

  • You will be protected from deportation, and you will be able to live and work anywhere in the United States for as long as you want.
  • You will be able to request asylum for your spouse and your unmarried children under the age of 21—even if they are outside of the United States or living without papers.
  • You will be able to get permission from the government to travel outside of the United States and return to the United States.
  • After you have spent one year in the United States as an asylee, you can choose to apply to become a Lawful Permanent Resident (green card holder). A few years after becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident, you can choose to apply to become a U.S. citizen.

If you are already in immigration court proceedings, applying for asylum will protect against your deportation while your application is pending. This is because if you apply for asylum with the immigration court, you will not be deported until an immigration judge has decided whether to grant you asylum (and, if you appeal, you will not be deported until the Board of Immigration Appeals has decided on your appeal). If you are not sure whether you are in immigration court proceedings, you can click here for more information.

Finally, even before the government makes a decision on your asylum application, you can apply for a work permit while your asylum application is pending. ASAP members are generally eligible to apply for work permits 150 days after submitting their application for asylum and without having to pay a fee. Non-ASAP members are generally eligible to apply for work permits 365 days after submitting their application for asylum. However, there are also exceptions. For more information about work permits for ASAP members, click here.


Q: What are the possible risks of applying for asylum?

If the United States government does not already know that you are in the country, applying for asylum will alert immigration authorities that you are here. You will also need to provide your address to the government when you apply for asylum. If you move, you will need to update your address with the government. In addition, if an asylum officer does not grant you asylum and you do not have other immigration status, you will be sent to immigration court for deportation proceedings. In immigration court, an immigration judge could eventually order you to be deported.

If you are already in immigration court proceedings, then the United States government already knows you are in the country, so these risks may not affect you. If you are not sure whether you are in immigration court proceedings, you can click here for more information.

In addition, it is important to be honest in your asylum application. If the government thinks you lied about important facts about your asylum claim, they may say that your asylum application was “frivolous.” If that happens, the government may bar you from getting other types of immigration status, even if they aren’t related to asylum.


Q: What is the process for applying for asylum?

There are different processes for applying for asylum, depending on the type of case you have, which include:

  1. If you are in immigration court proceedings (which are also called “deportation proceedings” or “removal proceedings”).
  2. If you are not in immigration court proceedings.
  3. If you are under 18 years old and were designated as an “unaccompanied minor” by the U.S. government—whether or not you are in immigration court proceedings.

If you are not sure whether you are in immigration court proceedings, you can click here for more information.

Below are simple summaries of each type of asylum process. For more detailed information on each process, you can read Sections I and II of this guide. In addition, please note that applying for asylum through any of these processes can take years, because the immigration courts and asylum offices often don’t have the resources to process asylum applications quickly.

  1. In immigration court proceedings

If you are in immigration court proceedings, you can apply for asylum with the immigration court. This process is called “defensive asylum” because you are applying for asylum as a defense against your deportation, and an immigration judge will decide your application.

After you file your asylum application, you will have a hearing called an “individual hearing” or a “merits hearing” in immigration court. Before the individual hearing, you will have a chance to submit evidence.

At the individual hearing, in most cases, you will have to testify. When you testify, you will need to give details about what happened to you in your country of origin and explain why you are afraid to return there. The government’s attorney will be allowed to ask you questions. In most cases, the government’s attorney will argue to the immigration judge that you should not receive asylum.

After the individual hearing, the immigration judge will either grant you asylum or deny you asylum and order you deported. If the immigration judge denies you asylum and orders you deported, you can appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals within 30 days. (You cannot be deported while you appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, but if you lose your appeal, you can be deported.)

You can click here to watch a video about submitting your asylum application to the immigration court, click here to watch a video about your individual hearing, and click here to watch a video about appealing your asylum case if the immigration judge denies you asylum.

  1. Not in immigration court proceedings

If you are not in immigration court proceedings, you can apply for asylum with an asylum office, which is part of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”). This process is called “affirmative asylum,” and an asylum officer will decide your application.

After you file your asylum application and submit evidence in support of your case, you will have an interview with an asylum officer. During your interview, the asylum officer will review your asylum application with you and ask you questions about yourself, the situation in your country of origin, and why you are afraid to return.

After your interview, the asylum officer will either grant you asylum or not.

  • If the asylum officer does not grant you asylum, and you do not have other immigration status (like Temporary Protected Status or a valid visa), the asylum officer will send you to immigration court, where an immigration judge will decide your asylum application, as described above. After a hearing, the immigration judge will either grant you asylum or order you deported.
  • If the asylum officer does not grant you asylum, and you do have other immigration status, the asylum officer will not send you to immigration court. Instead, the asylum officer will give you a short time to provide additional evidence and then grant or deny you asylum. If the asylum officer denies you asylum, you will be required to leave the United States when your other immigration status expires.

For more information about applying for affirmative asylum, you can read Section I of this guide.

  1. Unaccompanied minors 

People who are under 18 years old and have been designated as ”unaccompanied minors” by the U.S. government can apply for “affirmative asylum” with USCIS, even if they are in immigration court proceedings. For more information, you can read this government website.


Q: Can I apply for asylum without an attorney?

Yes, you can fill out the application for asylum (Form I-589) and apply for asylum on your own, although it is easier to do with the help of a trusted lawyer or non-profit organization. If you would like to find legal assistance, visit our find help page.

If you have not been able to connect with legal assistance and decide to fill out your application for asylum on your own, this guide may be able to help you. (Appendix F explains how to fill out the asylum application question by question.) This guide may also be able to help you, though it is specific to “defensive asylum” applications made by people who are already in immigration court proceedings. Finally, this guide also includes instructions on how to fill out the asylum application question by question.

You must fill out the asylum application in English and include English translations of any evidence.


Q: Aside from asylum, what are other forms of protection from deportation?

There are many forms of protection from deportation in the United States aside from asylum. Each form of protection has different requirements, benefits, and downsides. In addition, the President of the United States or Congress may create new forms of protection from time to time. You can follow ASAP’s legal updates and announcements for the latest news. You can also click here to use Immi, a tool created by other nonprofit organizations, to find out if you might be eligible for other forms of protection.

Here are some protections that may be relevant for people who are already in the United States are thinking about asylum:

  • Withholding of Removal and Protection Under the Convention Against Torture (“CAT”): Some people in deportation proceedings who are not eligible for asylum can receive either withholding of removal or protection under CAT instead. Like asylum, these are forms of protection against deportation for people who are afraid to return to their countries of origin. However, these are harder to win than asylum and have fewer benefits. The application for withholding of removal and protection under CAT is the same as the application for asylum. For more information about withholding of removal and protection under CAT, please read this guide and Section III of this guide.
  • Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”): TPS is a temporary immigration status provided to individuals from specific countries that are experiencing problems such as war or natural disasters. If you receive TPS, you cannot be deported from the United States while TPS is valid, can apply for a work permit, and can apply for permission to travel outside of the United States and then return. For more information about TPS, please read this page.
  • Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (“SIJS”): SIJS is given to children under the age of 21 who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both parents. This determination is made by the state court where you live, and some states limit it to children under the age of 18, so it is very important that you speak to an attorney before your 18th birthday to see if you qualify for this relief. Once the government approves your SIJS petition, you can apply to become a Lawful Permanent Resident (green card holder). You can click here to read a guide for attorneys about SIJS, and if you are under the age of 18, you can click here for more information about legal resources.
  • U-Visa: A U-Visa allows people to stay in the United States if they were the victim of a harmful crime in the United States and helped law enforcement officers investigate or prosecute that crime. If you receive a U-Visa, you can live and work in the United States legally for four years, you may be able to bring some of your family members to the United States, and you can apply to become a Lawful Permanent Resident (green card holder) after three years. For more information about applying for a U-Visa, please read this guide.
  • T-Visa: A T-Visa allows people to stay in the United States if they arrived in the United States (or came to the border) because they were a victim of human trafficking. If you receive a T-Visa, you can live and work in the United States legally for four years, you may be able to bring some of your family members to the United States, and you can apply to become a Lawful Permanent Resident (green card holder) after three years. For more information about applying for a T-Visa, please read this guide. You can also click here to read information for attorneys about T-Visas.
  • Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”): VAWA enables you to “self-petition” to become a Lawful Permanent Resident (green card holder) if you have a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident spouse, parent, or child who abused you. You can also “self-petition” if your spouse is a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident who abused your child. In addition, if you are in immigration court proceedings, VAWA allows certain people to ask an immigration judge to “cancel” their deportation so they can stay in the United States. For more information about VAWA self-petitions, you can read this guide about gathering the documents for a petition or this guide for attorneys. For more information about cancelling your deportation under VAWA, please read this guide.
  • Ten-Year Cancellation of Removal: Some people who have lived in the United States for more than ten years can ask an immigration judge to cancel their deportation so they can stay in the United States, but only if they have a parent, spouse, or child who is a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident (green card holder) and their deportation would cause this parent, spouse, or child “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship.” Unfortunately, this is a very high standard, and it is difficult to meet. For more information about ten-year cancellation of removal, please read this guide.
  • Family Petitions: U.S. citizens can petition for visas for their spouses, children, parents, or siblings who are abroad. Lawful Permanent Residents (green card holders) can also petition for visas for their spouses or unmarried children who are abroad. In addition, some close relatives of U.S. citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents may be eligible to “adjust status” to become Lawful Permanent Residents even if they are already in the United States. This can be a complicated process if you entered the U.S. without permission or if you have a removal order. For more information about family visa petitions, you can read this information from the United States government. For more information about adjustment of status, please read this guide.

For more information and resources from the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) visit our website.

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