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What is Political Asylum in the US?

Political asylum is an application approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), that permits an applicant to seek protection from persecution in their country of nationality.

To be validated:

  • That the application has been filed within one year of entry into the United States (there are some exemptions to this rule, but normally this is required).
  • That the applicant is afraid of being persecuted in his or her country of nationality because of race, spiritual beliefs, political thoughts and opinions, national origin or membership in a specific social group (for instance, women who have been or risk being subjected to forced circumcision or individuals who face persecution due to sexual preference).
  • That the applicant has experienced mistreatment on one of these bases previously or there is a high probability of future persecution on any of these bases.

If granted, political asylum provides legal status and employment authorization in the United States in addition to access to a refugee travel document for international travel.

One year from approval, a person given political asylum can apply to become a lawful permanent resident. Also, after three years and nine months from approval, assuming all good moral character and time requirements have been fulfilled, the person can apply to become a U.S. citizen.

Persecution is a term without a statutory definition in U.S. immigration law. It generally cannot be mere harassment or poor circumstance. It must be something more, such as human rights violations, torture, unlawful or political detention, physical violence, or infliction of serious emotional distress.

Threats of harm can also rise to the level of persecution, especially if others similarly situated to an applicant have experienced documented persecution much like that threatened against an applicant by a similar person.

Economic distress and harassment can also be deemed persecution if to the level of persecution, even if considered independently the incidents may not be major enough to qualify.

The actor of the persecution must be a person that is either from the government itself, or from a group of people or party that the government is unable or unwilling to handle.

Verifying this is often difficult.

Also, an applicant must identify why he or she was specifically targeted by the persecutor. The actions and the actor’s motivation for the persecution must be on one of the protected grounds listed above.

Political asylum is usually not available to someone who cannot prove he or she will be specifically targeted for persecution on the grounds listed above. General strife and inadequate country conditions alone do not bring about an asylum application approval.

An applicant must be willing to verify that he or she has a risk of being specifically targeted for persecution, by whom and on what grounds.

The application is filed with a USCIS regional service center, and is then advanced to a regional USCIS Asylum Office to be booked for interview. The applicant will go to the interview to reveal to the asylum officer why he or she is scared to return to his or her country.

The explanation in the interview must verify other information provided, including the application, any supporting statement and all evidence provided for the applicant to have a chance for approval.

More often than not, an answer is withheld at the interview, and the applicant will be expected to plan to either come again to the office to pick up the judgment or the decision may in some cases be mailed.

Credibility is a considerable issue in political asylum law and policy in the United States. The person can be successful on his or her statement on its own if it is sufficiently detailed, plausible and credible.

However, the law also mandates an applicant provide documentation that should reasonably be expected to be available and obtainable. If an adjudicator, either an asylum officer or an immigration judge, finds that reasonably accessible evidence was not provided, that could be a justification for denial.

If the person does not qualify for political asylum, for example, because the application was not filed within one year of entry into the United States, there are similar applications that may be considered to seek protection from torture or persecution.

One is withholding of removal, which is only available to people facing deportation from the United States.

The other is relief under the Convention Against Torture. While these both provide protection from deportation and employment authorization, they do not result in permanent residence. The standard of proof is higher as well. An applicant must establish by a preponderance of the proof that the persecution will occur, who will commit it and why.

While an application for political asylum can be difficult to win, those facing persecution may find it to be their only choice.


Garry L. Davis, managing attorney for Davis & Associates, an immigration law firm, graduated from the University of Texas School of Law and Brigham Young University. Board certified in immigration and nationality law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, he has been selected as a Texas Super Lawyer and for Best Lawyers in America. He served the American Immigration Lawyers Association as the Dallas immigration court liaison and as program co-director for a Texas chapter CLE conference held in Mexico. He has frequently spoken on immigration issues by various organizations.

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