Deciding whether to apply for asylum in the United States

Last updated on May 24, 2024

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.

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. If you win asylum, the United States government cannot deport you.

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

  • You have been harmed in the past, or you have good reason to believe that you will be harmed in the future, in your country of origin.
  • 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.
  • The government of your country of origin will cause this harm, or the government will be unwilling or unable to protect you from this harm.
  • You would not be safe if you moved to another part of your country of origin.

You can watch this video (available in multiple languages) to better understand the requirements for asylum in the United States.

Who can apply for asylum?

Generally, you can apply for asylum if:

  • It has been less than one year since you arrived in the United States. However, you may be able to apply after one year in some special circumstances.
  • You are currently inside the United States, or you are at the United States border. In order to apply for asylum, you must be inside the United States or at the border at the time of applying. If you are afraid of being harmed in your country of origin but you are not inside the United States, you may be able to apply for refugee status, which is a different process.

However, the U.S. government prohibits people from getting asylum if:

  • You applied for asylum in the United States before, and you were denied. But you may be able to apply again if there are new circumstances that affect your asylum case.
  • The U.S. government tried to deport you before. If you have received a deportation order in the past, you are often not eligible to apply for asylum.
  • You were offered permanent lawful status in another country that is not your country of origin or the United States.
  • You have certain kinds of criminal convictions that the U.S. government considers “particularly serious.”
  • The U.S. government believes you have participated in terrorism or caused harm to others because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or other specific characteristics.

If you are not sure if you can apply for asylum, you may wish to find an attorney to understand your options.

Even if you cannot apply for asylum, you may still be able to apply for other forms of protection from deportation, such as withholding of removal or protection under the Convention Against Torture (CAT).

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 for children who are currently not married and who were under the age of 21 when you submitted your application for asylum —even if they are outside of the United States or living in the United States without legal status.
  • You will be able to ask for permission from the government to travel outside of the United States and return to the United States.
  • You will have access to some public benefits and assistance that you did not have access to before you won asylum.
  • After you win asylum, 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.

Applying for asylum can also provide you with certain protections even before the government makes a decision on your asylum application.  

If you already have a case in immigration court, applying for asylum will protect against your deportation while your asylum application is pending. This means that if you applied for asylum in immigration court, you will not be deported until an immigration judge has decided whether or not to grant you asylum. If the judge does not grant you asylum, you will still have an opportunity to fight back against that decision. This process is called an appeal. If you appeal, the government cannot deport you until the Board of Immigration Appeals has decided on your appeal.

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.

What are the possible risks of applying for asylum?

If you do not have a case in immigration court, the U.S. government may not 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, and if you move, you will need to update your address with the government.

If an asylum officer does not grant you asylum and you do not have other immigration status, your case will be sent to immigration court. In immigration court, you will have another chance to fight for asylum. However, if an immigration judge denies your case, you could eventually be deported.

If you already have a case in immigration court, then the U.S. government already knows you are in the country, so these risks may not affect you.

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 are not related to asylum.

When do I need to apply for asylum?

Generally, you must submit your asylum application (Form I-589) within one year of arriving in the United States.

However, some people in specific situations may be able to apply for asylum even after one year of arriving in the United States. For example, children under 18 years old, people who have another type of immigration status, and others in special circumstances may be able to apply for asylum after one year. Read more here.

Also, even if you have been in the United States for more than a year, you may still qualify for other forms of protection under U.S. immigration law.

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, without an attorney. Continue reading to learn more about the process!

However, applying for asylum can be easier to do with the help of a trusted lawyer or non-profit organization. You can find legal assistance here.

What is the process for applying for asylum?

The process of applying for asylum can be different depending on your situation. First, it is important to understand if you have a case in immigration court or not. If you are not sure whether you have a case in immigration court, you can read more below.

  1. If you do not have a case in immigration court.
  2. If you have a case in immigration court (which are also called “deportation proceedings” or “removal 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 have a case in immigration court.

Below are simple summaries of each type of asylum process. You can find more detailed information about each process in these ASAP pages: asylum in immigration court, asylum with USCIS, and asylum as someone under 18 years old. 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. If you do not have a case in immigration court

If you do not have a case in immigration court, 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.

You can find more details about seeking asylum with USCIS here. You can also watch videos about the USCIS process here.

  1. If you have a case in immigration court

Most people who have a case in immigration court should apply for asylum with the immigration court. However, there are some special circumstances when people who have an immigration court case should apply with USCIS.

The process of seeking asylum in immigration court 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 find more details about seeking asylum in immigration court here. You can also watch videos about the immigration court process here.

  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 have a case in immigration court. Find more information about applying for asylum as someone under 18 here.

How do I know if I have a case in immigration court?

If you are not sure if you have a case in immigration court, here are some ways to find out.

  1. Review your immigration documents to see if you have received a Notice to Appear. If you have a Notice to Appear, this means that either you have a case in immigration court already, or the U.S. government is planning to start a case in immigration court against you in the future.

Then, enter your A Number (listed as the “File No.” on the Notice to Appear) on this immigration court system website or call the immigration court hotline at 1-800-898-7180. If your information is in the system, your immigration court case has started. If your information is not in the system, your immigration court case has not started yet.

  1. Review your other immigration documents to see if any of them lists an A Number. An A Number is an 8 or 9 digit number assigned to you by immigration officials. Some people have A Numbers, but some people do not.

If you have an A Number, enter your A Number on this immigration court system website or call the immigration court hotline at 1-800-898-7180. If your information is in the system, that means that you have a case in immigration court. If your information is not in the system, you do not have an active case in immigration court. However, it is possible that the U.S. government could start an immigration court against you in the future. You can continue to check the immigration court system occasionally.

  1. Consider other information. You may have a case in immigration court if one of these circumstances applies to you:
    • You were detained by immigration when you entered the United States at the Mexico-U.S. border.
    • You were detained by immigration at some point after entering the United States.
    • You have check-in appointments with ICE.
    • The government told you to report to ICE after you arrived in the United States.
    • You applied for asylum with USCIS, and USCIS did not grant you asylum.

If one of these circumstances applies to you, you may have a case in immigration court. Review your immigration documents and keep checking your mail to see if you receive a Notice to Appear. If you receive a Notice to Appear, that means the U.S. government has started or will start a case against you in immigration court.

If you are still unsure if you have a case in immigration court, you may want to find an attorney to understand your case status.

Aside from asylum, what other immigration options do I have?

You may be able to apply for other immigration options instead of asylum, or at the same time that you are applying for asylum. You can learn more about some of these other immigration options here.

Note: This information is for individuals seeking asylum in the United States and is not a substitute for advice from an attorney.

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