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Jul 01, 2021 | Documented and Rommel H. Ojeda

I-589: How to Seek Asylum in the United States

Immigrants seeking asylum in the United States must prove credible fear of returning home to win the right to stay in the United States.
-> This article is part of Documented’s Glossary. We want to make it easier to understand the U.S. immigration system. If you want to know more about different types of visas and immigration terms, please check out our library here.

-> To see more useful information for immigrants such as where to find free food aid or legal representation, check out our Master Resource Guide.

Every year thousands of individuals fleeing persecution are granted asylum in the United States. The laws governing the process to seek asylum are based on the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which requires protection for parties living within the borders of a country and prohibits them from sending them back to a country where they would face persecution.

In 1980, during an exodus of Vietnamese civilians, the U.S. changed the legal definition of refugee with the Refugee Act of 1980. A “refugee” became a person with a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The act also raised the annual ceiling for refugees from 17,400 to 50,000, and created a process for reviewing and adjusting the refugee ceiling to meet emergencies, and required annual consultation between Congress and the President.

Who can seek asylum?

A person demonstrably persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group; and who has been forced to flee a country where authorities can or will not address their persecution, is eligible to apply for asylum within the United States. A person who is requesting or granted asylum is called an asylee. 

Unlike refugees, who request protection while still overseas, asylees apply for protection from within or at a point of entry into the U.S. Asylum seekers are encouraged to present themselves at a port of entry, but any nonresident who is present in the territory of the U.S. can apply for asylum within one year of arrival, regardless of whether they entered the country legally or have current legal status.

How to apply for asylum?

U.S. immigration law requires those who seek asylum to submit the I-589 Application for Asylum and for Withholding Removal within one year of their arrival into the United States. There is no fee for filing. Applicants will then be interviewed by an asylum officer to determine if they have “credible fear” of persecution in their home country. If the applicant is already in removal proceedings or their original asylum claim is denied, their case will be referred to federal immigration court, where an immigration judge will decide whether or not to grant asylum.

You cannot apply for permission to work (employment authorization) in the United States at the same time you apply for asylum. You may apply for employment authorization 150 calendar days after you file your complete asylum application. Applicants who have been granted asylum status and receive work authorization can petition to be joined by spouses or unmarried children under 21 years of age, and can apply for legal permanent residency after one year.

Also read: Credible Fear Interview

How to get professional help filing for asylum?

The process of filing a form to seek asylum, among other cases, can be daunting. We have compiled a list of articles with organizations offering legal representation, pro-bono or low cost, for individuals living in New York:

  • List of pro-bono lawyers and free legal immigration services in New York
  • Guide on how ActionNYC works, a program that provides free legal services in New York City 
  • Guide on how to get free legal help for immigrants NY State 

For civilians outside of NY, we recommend looking for local pro bono programs in your state. Here are some ideas on how to get help:

  • Legal answers website maintained by the American Bar Association. Results might include some legal aid offices as well as individual law firms.
  • Pro bono opportunities website, maintained by the American Bar Association. 
  • Contact your local or state bar association (a professional organization dedicated to advancing the careers and education of their members). 
  • Contact your church or other house of worship. Some religious organizations or local chapters or houses offer legal assistance to their congregants.
  • Visit the local law school. Many have legal clinics where students, supervised by attorneys, take cases for free.

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