Seeking asylum: how it works in the US

Asylum has been one part of the discussion about immigration at the US-Mexico border, which has intensified amid the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that calls for the prosecution of virtually everyone who enters and remains in the United States illegally.

Loren Elliott/Thomson Reuters Foundation
A Honduran boy seeking asylum waits on the Mexican side of the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge after his family was denied entry by US Customs and Border Protection officers near Brownsville, Texas, on June 26, 2018.

Amid headlines and changing policies from the Trump administration about immigration, it might be difficult for readers to discern just what are the guidelines governing migrants to the United States, and what defines a refugee or someone seeking asylum. Here are a few key questions to help make the distinction.

Q: How many asylum cases are there in the US?

The number of asylum filings more than tripled between fiscal years 2014 and 2017. That assessment was made by L. Francis Cissna, director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), at a House hearing in May. The tally for fiscal year 2017 – 141,695 asylum applications – was the highest annual number of claims in more than 20 years, Mr. Cissna also noted. The backlog of cases at immigration courts is rising as well. More than 318,000 asylum cases are pending, Cissna said.

In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that in general, domestic or gang violence is not grounds for asylum. Many cases involving Central Americans are based on such claims.

As for the zero-tolerance policy, the Trump administration recently softened its stance a bit, saying that for the most part, families with children under age 5 would be released with ankle monitors instead of being detained indefinitely.

Q: What does it mean when a person seeks asylum in the US?

Asylum is a protection that can be granted to a migrant from a foreign country who is already in the US or at a border point. He or she must also meet the international definition of a refugee, which the United Nations puts as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.”  When asylum is granted, it allows migrants to stay in the US on a renewable work visa and apply for a green card one year later, as well as apply for citizenship after five years, according to USCIS.

Affirmative asylum can be obtained through the voluntary act of arriving at a border point and initiating the process legally through an immigration officer, who schedules what is called a credible fear interview. If a migrant enters the US illegally, or has remained illegally, and is caught by immigration authorities, under current US law that person may be eligible to apply for defensive asylum. On July 12, though, a new Trump administration guidance told immigration officers to weigh whether an immigrant crossed the border illegally against them, potentially adding another basis for rejecting their asylum application.

Q: Are asylum-seekers the same as refugees?

The two terms, at least in the US, are not interchangeable. Much of the difference has to do with where a migrant is making a claim – in the US or abroad. Although both types of migrants are fleeing persecution, asylum-seekers come to the US of their own accord, whereas refugees are selected and transported by the US government.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is mandated to provide international protection to refugees, meaning that upon arrival in the US refugees usually receive temporary housing and cash assistance from voluntary resettlement agencies. Asylum-seekers often don’t receive the same initial resettlement services in the US because they didn’t arrive via the US government. But English classes, job search assistance, and other services are available to migrants who have been granted either status, says Randy Capps, director of research for US programs at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

Q: Where are migrants at the US-Mexican border from?

Currently, almost 50 percent of migrants at the border are fleeing Central America’s troubled Northern Triangle, made up of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Forty-six percent of those at the border are from Mexico, Dr. Capps says. While the US has provided these countries with billions of dollars in aid over the past 10 years, drug trafficking, corruption, gang violence, and other dangers still disrupt the area immensely,  

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Seeking asylum: how it works in the US
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today