How to Apply for Asylum or Refugee Status

By Brett Snider, Esq. on July 14, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Former U.S. intelligence contractor and current fugitive Edward Snowden says he's seeking temporary asylum in Russia until he can arrange "safe passage" to a permanent new home in South or Central America.

Snowden has been offered asylum by Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, reports Reuters. But it's not clear how he'll make it to one of those destinations.

If people like Edward Snowden can seek asylum from the United States, how can immigrants from foreign nations apply for asylum or refugee status in America?

What Is Asylum?

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will allow foreign persons either arriving in or already present in the United States to temporarily remain in the county to protect them from persecution.

Applying for asylum either occurs when a foreign national is physically at a U.S. port of entry (i.e., an airport, seaport, or border crossing) or within one year of arriving in the county.

Residents who are granted asylum can:

  • Legally apply for work,
  • Apply to have their spouse or children brought to the United States, and
  • File for permanent residence (i.e., apply for a "green card") one year after they've been granted asylum.

Proving Asylum Eligibility

In order to be granted asylum, a person must prove that they are in some way a political or social refugee (see 8 U.S.C. Section 1101(a)(42)) from their country of origin.

This can be proven by showing you have either suffered persecution in your home country, or that you have a "well-founded fear" that you will suffer future persecution due to your:

  • Race,
  • Religion,
  • Nationality,
  • Membership in particular social group, or
  • Political opinion.

A foreign national will be denied asylum if she is either engaged in terrorist activity or is the spouse or child of a recent terrorist.

Refugees who have entered the United States illegally, however, are still eligible for asylum.

Asylum Decisions and Appeals

After making your refugee case and filing it, an asylum seeker will need to submit to an interview before a judge or immigration officer.

After the interview, an applicant for asylum will receive one of the following asylum decisions:

  • Asylum granted. This gives the asylum-seeker and family members (if approved) protection in the United States and the ability to work and apply for permanent residency in the future.
  • Recommended approval. This indicates that the Asylum Officer has preliminarily approved a candidate's application, but it will not be granted until a thorough background check is completed.
  • Referral to immigration court. In this case, an applicant's case will be heard before an immigration judge who will make an evaluation.
  • Notice of intent to deny (NOID). This will state the reasons the government plans to deny the application, but gives the candidate 16 days to respond with rebuttal evidence.
  • Final denial. This will issue if the applicant ignored the NOID, or if the government didn't like the applicant's rebuttal evidence.

After a final denial of asylum, an applicant can appeal their case to the Board of Immigration Appeals and even to the federal Courts of Appeal, although it still might prove to be an uphill battle. An experienced immigration lawyer will be able to give you more specific advice and guide you through the process.

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