General Orientation

This page has information about the decision to apply for asylum and other general topics. 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 find legal help and discuss the specifics of your case.

Scroll down or click on the links below to read questions and answers from the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP).

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 or have good reason to believe that you will be harmed 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 get 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 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.

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 aren’t 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, there are several exceptions to this rule. If you have already been in the United States for more than a year, you may still be able to apply for asylum.

Also, even if you miss the one-year deadline, you may still qualify for other forms of protection under U.S. immigration law.  For example, withholding of removal and protection under the Convention Against Torture (“CAT”) are similar to asylum because they are also for people who are afraid of returning to their countries of origin. You can apply using the same form as the form for asylum, Form I-589.

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 helpful to understand if you have a case in immigration court or not. Read here if you are not sure if you have a case in immigration court.

If you have a case in immigration court, you can apply for asylum in immigration court. Applying for asylum in immigration court is also called the “defensive” asylum process.

If you do not have a case in immigration court, you can apply for asylum with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Applying for asylum with USCIS is also called the “affirmative” asylum process.

If you are under 18 years old and you are applying for asylum, you may be able to apply for asylum with USCIS, even if you have a case in immigration court.  

Do 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.

  • Review your immigration documents to see if you have received a Notice to Appear. If you have a Notice to Appear, this means that the government has started or is planning to start an immigration court case against you.
  • Check your 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 do have an A Number, check the immigration court system by calling the immigration court hotline at 1-800-898-7180 or by entering your A number on this immigration court system website. If your information is in the system, that means that you have a case in immigration court.
  • If you were detained by immigration when you entered the United States at the Mexico-U.S. border, or if you were detained by immigration at some point after entering the United States, you most likely have a case in immigration court.
  • If you applied for asylum with USCIS, and USCIS did not grant you asylum, you may also have a case 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.

What is the difference between CBP, ICE, USCIS, and Immigration Court?

The U.S. government has multiple immigration agencies. Each agency is responsible for a different part of the immigration system. These agencies include: Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Immigration Court (also called the Executive Office for Immigration Review or EOIR).

If you want to pursue your asylum case, it is very important to attend ALL your scheduled appointments and hearings. If you move, make sure to update your address with each of these agencies separately. The different agencies do not tell each other when someone has moved, so you need to update them separately.

  • CBP is the government agency that enforces immigration laws at the border, ports, and airports. They make an initial determination about who can enter the United States and who cannot. They can also arrest and detain people near the border.
  • ICE is the government agency that enforces immigration laws within the United States. ICE acts as the immigration “police.” They can detain people who they think violated immigration laws. Some people have regular check-in appointments with ICE. These check-in appointments sometimes happen with private companies that work for ICE, through a program called “ISAP.”
  • USCIS is the government agency that processes many immigration applications. If you do not have an immigration court case, you can apply for asylum with USCIS. Whether or not you have an immigration court case, USCIS is where you go for your biometrics appointment (where fingerprints are taken). USCIS also processes applications for work permits, green cards, U.S. citizenship, and more.
  • The immigration court is the government agency that decides whether certain immigrants can stay in the United States. If you apply for asylum in immigration court, an immigration judge will decide your case. An immigration court case is also called “immigration court proceedings,” “removal proceedings,” “deportation proceedings” or “EOIR.” If an immigration judge denies asylum, you can appeal to the next level of immigration court system, which is called the Board of Immigration Appeals.

How do I check the status of my case?

If you have a case in immigration court, you can find out the date of your next hearing and other information by calling the court hotline at 1-800-898-7180 or by entering your A Number on this website. You can also call a specific court on this list. You can watch this video or look at this flyer for more information.

If your asylum application is pending with USCIS, you can find out your application status by entering your receipt number on this website.

What is my A Number?

An A Number is an identification number that is assigned to a non-citizen by the U.S. government. It is also known as an “alien number” or “alien registration number.” Each A Number is unique and nobody has the same A Number as you. An A number is usually 9-digits long, but can be 7 or 8 digits as well.

You can find your A Number in various documents you receive from USCIS, ICE, or immigration court. You can look at these sample documents to see where you can find your A Number on your immigration documents.

If you have not had any interactions with an immigration agency, it is possible that you do not have an A number yet. For example, you may not have an A number if you have never been detained, you have not submitted any applications, and you do not have an immigration court case. Additionally, if you were released from the border with a Notice to Report, you may not have an A number yet.

If you lost your immigration documents, you can ask the government to send you a copy of them, through a process called a “FOIA request.” You can watch this video about what FOIA is. You can submit a FOIA request to USCIS here. Please note that this process may take a long time.

What is this document that I got from the government?

Please take a look at these sample documents to see if one of them matches what you have received from the government. You can also try using google translate to translate text from English to another language.

How do I mail documents related to my immigration case?

You have a few different options for mailing documents related to your immigration case:

  • First, you can choose to send mail using the United States Postal Service (USPS), commonly known as the post office. USPS is run by the U.S. government. They offer several kinds of mailing services with tracking, such as Priority Mail and Priority Mail Express. They also offer Regular Mail but it does not come with tracking. To find a post office near you, go to this website and enter your city and state. For the “Location Type,” select “Post Office.”
  • Or, you can choose to send mail using a private company such as Federal Express (FedEx) or United Postal Service (UPS). The private companies are usually more expensive than the post office, but can often guarantee a faster delivery time.

Whatever option you choose, there are some important points to keep in mind:

  • It is important to have a way of tracking your mail and to have proof of delivery! Most mailing options except for Regular Mail at the post office should allow you to track your mail. Make sure to keep the tracking number (usually located on the receipt) somewhere safe. One way you can do this is to take a photo of the tracking number with your phone.
  • If you are given an option to have the recipient sign when they receive the package, do not choose this option! USCIS and immigration courts do not have staff available to sign for documents. This means your documents may not be delivered if you choose this option.
  • Make sure that you are sending your documents to the correct address. Sometimes USCIS uses one address for USPS, and a different address for the private companies UPS and FedEx.

Watch this video for more details about the different ways to send documents by mail!

Note: This page is for adults who are interested in seeking asylum in the United States. Our hope is that you will use the information to better understand the asylum process and take control of your case. However, this information is not a substitute for legal advice about your particular case. To look for legal assistance, visit ASAP’s find help page