As large numbers of migrants from Central America have fled to the U.S. in recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the asylum process and how it works in the U.S.

Asylum grants are just a tiny part of America’s vast and complicated immigration system, but the process is widely misunderstood and mischaracterized, even by the government leaders responsible for managing it.

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What does it mean to seek asylum in the U.S.?

That’s when people from other countries come to the U.S. and ask to remain permanently because they fear being persecuted if returned home. Asylum seekers are similar to refugees. The main difference is that refugees apply for immigration status before they arrive in the U.S., while those seeking asylum usually just show up at a point of entry or enter with a temporary visa and apply for protected status. And although there’s a cap on the number of refugees admitted each year, the number of asylum grants is left open-ended.

How does someone qualify for asylum?

Asylum seekers must first prove that they have a “credible fear” of being persecuted if sent back home. In a pre-screening with an asylum officer, they have to prove they have a well-founded fear of being harmed or detained because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Those who pass this first step then make their case before an immigration judge, who either grants or denies asylum. Applicants who are denied asylum typically get deported. But those granted asylum can live and work legally in the U.S., and apply for a green card after a year.

Why is asylum being talked about so much now?

Since 2014, a major surge of immigrants, including many unaccompanied children, from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala–among the most dangerous countries in the world–have shown up at the U.S.-Mexico border to request asylum. Many are fleeing rampant gang violence and crippling poverty. But the Trump administration has aggressively tried to crackdown on the number of undocumented immigrants entering the country. Administration officials claim that many asylum-seekers are gaming the system by making up stories to find an easy way in.

In an effort to make the asylum process more difficult, the administration has instructed immigration officials to reject more claims. They also briefly ordered immigration agents to detain adult applicants and separate them from their children while awaiting asylum hearings. This controversial policy was abruptly ended after a massive public outcry, but many children still remain separated from their parents.


The 1951 Refugee Convention

The 1951 Refugee Convention is the key legal document that forms the basis of our work. Ratified​ by 145 State parties, it defines the term ‘refugee’ and outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them.

USCIS to Take Action to Address Asylum Backlog

WASHINGTON – U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced today that the agency will schedule asylum interviews for recent applications ahead of older filings, in an attempt to stem the growth of the agency’s asylum backlog.

Yearbook 2016

The 2016 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics is a compendium of tables that provide data on foreign nationals who are granted lawful permanent residence (i.e., immigrants who receive a “green card”), admitted as temporary nonimmigrants, granted asylum or refugee status, or are naturalized. The Yearbook also presents data on immigration enforcement actions, including apprehensions and arrests, removals, and returns.

Refugees and Asylees in the United States

The United States has historically led the world on refugee resettlement, and today remains the top country, having resettled approximately 85,000 refugees in fiscal 2016. It also granted asylum status to more than 26,000 individuals in FY 2015. This article examines characteristics of U.S.

Asylum in the United States

Asylum seekers must navigate a difficult and complex process that can involve multiple government agencies. This fact sheet provides an overview of the asylum system in the United States, including how asylum is defined, eligibility requirements, and the application process.

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These latest Immigration Court numbers are based on case-by-case records on each asylum decision that were obtained and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. These court records were provided by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) as a result of a series of Freedom of Information Act requests by TRAC.

Sessions: Victims of domestic abuse and gang violence generally won’t qualify for asylum

June 11, 2018 Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled Monday that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence generally will not qualify for asylum under federal law, a decision that advocates say will endanger tens of thousands of foreign nationals seeking safety in the United States.

For U.S. asylum seekers, some judges are a better bet than others

OAKLAND, California – The two Honduran women told nearly identical stories to the immigration courts: Fear for their lives and for the lives of their children drove them to seek asylum in the United States. They were elected in 2013 to the board of the parent-teacher association at their children’s school in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.

Has there been a 1,700 percent increase in asylum claims?

President Donald Trump argued that immigrants entering illegally are gaming the American immigration system, citing a remarkable rise in asylum applications. He said some asylum seekers are actually abusing the process with criminal intentions. “There's been a 1,700 percent increase in asylum claims over the last 10 years,” Trump said in a June 19 speech.

Applying for asylum in the US takes, on average, 6 months, 2 interviews and one big decision

The caravan of Central American men, women and children currently languishing at the US-Mexico border has turned national attention to asylum seekers. What does the asylum process look like? And to whom does it apply?

Organised violence is ravaging Central America and displacing thousands

Millions have fled El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and it’s not surprising, 43 of the 50 most homicidal cities are located in Latin America and the Caribbean

How Does the U.S. Asylum Process Work? 8 February,2019Matthew Green


Matthew Green

Matthew Green is a digital media producer for KQED News. He previously produced The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog. Matthew's written for numerous Bay Area publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. He also taught journalism classes at Fremont High School in East Oakland.

Email:; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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