What is an Asylum?
Asylum is a legal program that serves the humanitarian purpose of allowing a person who fears persecution in his or her home country to stay in the United States. A person who has been granted asylum, called an asylee, may apply for permanent residency in the United States one year after asylum has been granted. An asylee may also apply for “derivative asylum status” for his or her spouse and children under the age of twenty-one.
Who Can Apply for Asylum?
In order for a person to be able to apply for asylum, that person must be physically present in the United States or at a port of entry. A person who is not present in the United States cannot apply for asylum but can apply for refugee status.
To be eligible for asylum the person must be unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. The persecution must be because of the person’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
Definition of Well-Founded Fear
An applicant for asylum must have a real, personal fear of being persecuted. Also, that fear must be “well-founded,” meaning that it must be based on reality. That is, there must be a reasonable possibility of persecution.
This means that the applicant must provide evidence documenting the reason for his or her fear of persecution. Reports from the U.S. State Department or human rights organizations or newspaper articles providing details of the conditions in the applicant’s home country can be helpful in demonstrating that the applicant’s fear is well-founded.
Reason for the Persecution
In order to qualify for asylum, the persecution that the applicant fears must be based on some specific characteristic of the applicant. The characteristics that qualify for asylum are listed in the law. They are race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group and political opinion.
Persecution because of a person’s race often involves extreme discrimination based on a person being part of a social group having common decent. Often, outward characteristics help define a person’s race, such as skin color. For example, during the 1980s, members of the Miskito Indian tribe were granted asylum on the basis of persecution by the Sandinista government of Nicaragua on account of race.
When a person faces persecution because of religious beliefs, that person may qualify for asylum. For example, a Muslim converted to Christianity in Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power. That person was persecuted for possessing Christian Bibles and engaging in Christian activities. A court found that he had been persecuted based on religion.
Nationality does not always refer to a person’s country of citizenship. Rather, nationality often involves membership in a social group sharing a common ancestry, common religion, and common social values. The multi-national country of Iraq, for example, is the home of Arabs, Kurds, and Persians. It has been argued that Kurdish nationals suffered persecution under Saddam Hussein.
A social group involves people who share certain characteristics. These characteristics can include where the people live, their gender, their family background, or their shared past experiences. The characteristics must be something that the people either cannot change about themselves, or should not be required to change because it is a fundamental part of their identity.
Women who face an extreme level of abuse may qualify for asylum based on membership in a particular social group. For example, asylum has been granted to women who either face genital mutilation or who have been subject to genital mutilation.
Finally, asylum may be granted when a person faces persecution based on a political opinion. The political opinion can be one that is openly expressed. For example, participation in demonstrations, membership in certain political organizations, and even certain union activities can qualify as an expression of political opinion.
However, there are situations where a person can qualify for asylum based on persecution for a political opinion even where the person has not expressed that opinion. This can occur when the applicant can show that the persecutor believes that the applicant has a certain political opinion. For example, a persecutor may believe that people who live in a certain village hold anti-government political opinions. If the persecutor acts on that belief by persecuting village members, those village members may qualify for asylum even if they do not actually hold anti-government political opinions.
In 1996, the United States passed a law which said that forced family planning may qualify as persecution based on political opinion. Thus, a person who has been forced to undergo sterilization or forced to have an abortion may qualify for asylum based on persecution for a political opinion.
Application Process to obtain asylum
An application for asylum must be filed within one year of arriving in the United States. There are two exceptions to this rule: (1) changed circumstances in the person’s home country now cause a person to have a well-founded fear of persecution if he or she returns; and (2) extraordinary circumstances delayed the filing of the application for asylum.
Required Forms and Documents
To apply for asylum, a person first files an Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal, which is also known as Form I-589. The Application for Asylum should also include a Declaration from the applicant. The Declaration is simply a written statement that gives the applicant an opportunity to tell his or her story. The Declaration should be a personal story, telling about past acts of persecution and explain why the applicant fears to return to his or her home country. Any documents were written in another language other than English must be translated by a certified translation Agency.
Along with the Application for Asylum, an applicant should file documents that support his or her case. For example, if there is an international organization that has issued a report on the human rights violations that exist in the applicant’s home country, the applicant should include that report. Also, if there are newspaper articles detailing specific incidents of persecution, the applicant should include them along with the application. Essentially, the goal of the application package is to convince the U.S. Government that the applicant has a real fear of returning to his or her home country and that the fear is grounded in fact.
The Application for Asylum is unique among the immigration forms filed with the U.S. Government because there is no fee to process the application.
Watch this 3 part documentary about Asylum which I found to be very useful.