Q & A: Refugee and Asylee Status

May 15, 2001

We frequently get questions about political asylum and refugee status. On the one hand, this is very familiar to many recent immigrants, because many have come to the United States under the U.S. refugee program. But on the other, there are many details of these area of immigration that are not easily understood.

We hope that some of these questions and answers may help you to better understand how political asylum and the refugee system works.


I am a citizen of Russia, in the US visiting my cousin. She was a citizen of Russia too, but came here as a refugee several years ago, and is now a US citizen. I would like to apply for refugee status like my cousin did, but don't want to go back to Russia. May I apply for refugee status or political asylum? What is the difference?.


Political asylum status and refugee status are very similar. The only substantial difference is that political asylum is requested in the United States and refugee status is requested outside the United States. Since you are in the U.S., and don't want to leave, you would therefore need to request political asylum, not refugee status.

In general, you must apply for political asylum within one year of entry into the country. However, you may apply later than one year if conditions in your country have changed or if your personal circumstances have changed within the past year prior to your asking for asylum, and those changes of circumstances affected your eligibility for asylum. In certain circumstances, you may be excused from the one year deadline if extraordinary circumstance prevented you from filing within the one year period after your arrival.

The fundamental basis for receiving political asylum is that you unable or unwilling to return to your home country because of persecution, or a reasonable and honest ("well-founded") fear of persecution, because of your race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

You should be able to prove specific acts of such persecution that have happened to you in the past, or a real and reasonable reason to fear that such acts of persecution may happen to you in the future if you return.

The people you are claiming persecuted or will persecute you must be members of the government, or people who the government is unwilling or unable to control.


I understand the basic idea behind political asylum, and I believe that I would qualify for it. But how do I apply for it, and how long will it take?


You ask for political asylum by completing INS Form I-589 (Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal). Although the form appears to be rather simple, it is actually quite complicated. You should not attempt to prepare it without the assistance of a professional. The most important part is where you explain your basis for claiming political asylum. This part requires a strong command of English, a thorough understanding of the law, and a good understanding which facts must be included, and which to leave out.

The political asylum request is filed with the INS Service Center for your area (there is no fee), and then processing is taken over by one of the INS Asylum offices. You will have to go to an interview with an Asylum Officer, where you will explain your situation in person. Again, you should definitely have professional assistance for this. The Asylum Officer may grant your request if you have a sufficiently strong and well-prepared case. Otherwise, the Asylum Officer will deny your case, or refer the case to an Immigration Judge for a decision. You may expect the INS and Immigration Judge to process your case within 180 days.

If the Immigration Judge also denies your request, you may appeal the denial to the Board of Immigration Appeals. This step may take several months, or even years.

If you are granted asylum, you will be allowed to live and work in the United States. You also will be able to apply for permanent resident status one year after you are granted asylum.


My visa expired a few months ago, and I am currently not in status. My friend told me that I can get legal, and even get a work permit, if just apply for political asylum. Is that true?


If you are out of status now, you can apply for political asylum and save yourself from deportation until the political asylum case is decided. You can even get a work permit in about 180 days after applying, if your case is still in the process of being decided.

However, applying for political asylum does not really correct your "illegal" status. That means that you cannot change to most other types of status while still in the U.S., and that if your case is eventually decided against you, you will be ordered deported and have many immigration penalties placed against you.

So, applying for political asylum is probably not a good way to fix your illegal status, unless you have a real claim to political asylum.


Contact John Byrley at tel: 410-719-1501.

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