There is often confusion about the difference between refugees, asylum seekers, and other classifications of immigrants. I recently posted about refugees when the governor of Texas wrote a letter stating that our state would no longer be willing to accept refugees. At that time it was clear that many people misunderstood the difference between refugee resettlement and the asylum process.

I am not an expert or professional in immigration, but I have been reading a lot on this topic in the past few years. There are so many conflicting reports coming from news sources, and I wanted to learn more about our immigration system. It is truly convoluted! Policies change often and it is difficult to keep up with the latest facts. For example, this article explains the 40+ changes that have been implemented since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Bearing that in mind, here are some things that I have learned about seeking asylum.

Who is eligible for asylum?

The definition of an asylum seeker is virtually the same as a refugee, but they arrive in the U.S. through different means. Refugees are resettled to the U.S. after fleeing their country of origin and seeking asylum in another country. They are vetted and given authorization to come to the U.S. by our government prior to their arrival. Asylees1 are also fleeing persecution in their home country, but they are applying for asylum with the United States either at the border or from within the U.S. Seeking asylum in the U.S. is not something that can be done from an embassy or from their home — individuals may file for asylum only if they are physically in the United States or at a port of entry.

It is not illegal for an individual to enter the U.S. and request asylum, but the bar for being granted asylum is quite high. Asylum seekers cannot simply claim to be fleeing persecution – they must actually provide evidence. They are also required to file their asylum claim within one year of entering the U.S.

If they are granted asylum, then they are given legal status in the U.S. and after one year they can apply for their permanent residency (aka green) card, and then can apply for citizenship 4 years after that. However, if their asylum request is denied, they are subject to deportation.

What happens when someone files an asylum claim?

So once someone has reached the U.S. and wants to file for asylum, what happens next? There are two avenues for filing for asylum: someone can initiate contact USCIS to claim asylum (affirmative asylum), or if someone is already in removal proceedings, they can also apply for asylum as a defense against their removal (defensive asylum)1. Both of these are legal processes.

Affirmative Asylum

If an asylum seeker applies for affirmative asylum with USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), they will go through background checks and an interview with an asylum officer. The officer will decide whether or not asylum can be granted2.

Defensive Asylum

When an asylum seeker applies for defensive asylum, they are already in removal proceedings. This is also (kind of) the process for those who present themselves to an agent at the border. In these cases, the agents are supposed to conduct a screening to determine whether or not the individual has a credible fear that would allow them to apply for asylum1. This isn’t making the final decision, but determines the next steps.

If there is a finding of credible fear, the individual is referred to immigration court. Then the asylum seeker will wait for their court date and an immigration judge will make the final decision in their asylum case. If the agent determines that there is NOT a reason for credible fear, then they are deported3.

It’s important to note that credible fear only applies to the legal classifications for asylum. Someone can be have a credible fear for their life and still be denied asylum if it is not due to persecution.

Where do asylum seekers come from?

While overall border apprehensions have gone down significantly over the last two decades, the number of migrants claiming asylum has greatly increased4. This is why we hear about such a backlog in the immigration courts.

Another significant change in recent years is the demographics of those crossing the border. In the past, the majority of arrests at the border were single men. However in 2019, 56% of those apprehended by CBP were families5. Most of these migrants were originally from Central America rather than Mexico. 71% of the individuals apprehended by Border Patrol were from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador6.

These demographics help explain why the asylum cases have jumped so high – rather than single men crossing the border from Mexico in search of work, we are seeing more families fleeing the “Northern Triangle” countries and seeking asylum due to gang violence and government corruption.

Of course, not all migrants apprehended at the border are seeking asylum, just as not all asylum claims originate at the U.S.-Mexico border. In fact, the top originating countries for asylum claims as of September 2019 were:

El Salvador8%
Honduras 8%
Source: Asylum Office Workload September 2019 report, USCIS Website

Why does it matter?

I started researching this topic for my own information a couple of years ago. There is so much inflammatory rhetoric out there, and it’s difficult to know what to believe. There is still so much that I don’t know or understand. Nevertheless, I find it to be so important to do some homework before forming opinions on issues as hotly debated as immigration. The first step for me was trying to learn what all these terms meant, and hopefully compiling some of these resources in one spot can help a reader or two as they seek to understand these things as well.

Further Reading

For a more in-depth read, I recommend this article from the American Immigration Council. It is a couple of years old, but provides good information of the way the system works in general. Also, the FAQ page from Women of Welcome answers many relevant questions if you would like to look deeper into immigration.