Immigration is a hot-button topic of political discussion these days. No matter what side of the political divide you’re on, it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the heated rhetoric. But there’s at least one immigration-related program that, thus far, has attracted remarkably little controversy: political asylum. Here’s why ordinary Americans should hope it stays that way.
What Is Political Asylum?
The theory of political asylum is an ancient one, in force since the earliest nation-states formed. It’s a straightforward concept: According to the United Nations, which is the arbiter of its modern conception, asylum allows those who face persecution in their home countries to seek safety and shelter in another jurisdiction. Asylum is most often invoked to prevent genocide, i.e. the slaughter or oppression of ethnic and religious minorities by a national majority (or, in some cases, another minority).
Asylum is also used to mitigate population displacements caused by war or the collapse of a national government. Recent history offers numerous situations, from Somalia and Libya to Iraq and Syria, in which multiethnic refugees have sought asylum due to war or the lack of a functional state government capable of protecting them.
Though policies vary by country, refugees whose asylum petitions have been accepted (known as “asylees”) are generally permitted to remain in their host country indefinitely. However, they may not be allowed to work or become citizens of the country; as a result, many refugees spend some time in an initial host country before applying for permanent status in a country with more lenient policies.
Applying for Asylum and Next Steps
The process of applying for asylum also varies greatly by country. In the United States, which accepts between 50,000 and 150,000 asylees per year, the process is rigidly defined. Hundreds of U.S. law firms work with refugees, often on a pro bono basis, to support asylum applications. This includes high-profile plaintiffs’ firms whose main practice areas have little to do with human rights law.
To apply for asylum in the U.S., refugees need to file Form I-589 (Petition for Asylum and the Withholding of Removal) with U.S. Customs and Immigration Services. After initial processing, the applicant is typically invited for a face-to-face interview with an immigration agent, who evaluates his or her case on the merits and makes a status determination. Accepted applicants are free to remain in the U.S. on a temporary basis, while rejected applicants typically must leave the country (and possibly reapply for asylum from foreign soil).
Accepted asylum applicants are immediately granted the right to work in the United States and issued a Social Security Card. Accepted applicants may also petition the government to accept immediate family members into the United States in a process known as family reunification. (Unfortunately, due to limited resources and bureaucratic priorities, reunification can sometimes take months or years.)
After a year of living and working in the United States, an asylee can apply for permanent residence, i.e. a green card. Although the U.S. government doesn’t divulge information about acceptance probabilities or other data that could compromise proprietary processes, it’s likely that asylees’ green card applications are more likely to be accepted than non-asylees’.