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Generally, an asylum applicant must prove that he/she has a "well-founded fear of persecution" based on his race, religion, membership in a social group, political opinion or national origin. These legally recognized grounds are called nexus. Once granted asylum the person is called an Asylee.

Individuals inside the U.S. may apply for asylum in one of two ways:

  • Affirmative Asylum: The application is submitted "affirmatively" by mailing it to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which will then schedule an interview with a specially trained asylum officer.
  • Defensive Asylum: The application is submitted "as a way to prevent deportation when an asylum seeker is in removal proceedings". In defensive cases, an Immigration Judge decides whether to grant the applicant asylum status or not.

In either instance, the application must be submitted within one year of entry to the U.S., or the person will be found automatically ineligible. Exceptions are allowed for extraordinary circumstances (see "Bars to Asylum" Section).

An asylum application usually consists of the following: (i) the actual official form for asylum; (ii) applicant’s personal affidavit; (iii) supporting documentation for claim; (iv) personal and identity documents; (v) photos; (vii) other documentation, such as country condition evidence.

The success of the application for asylum, among other factors, usually depends on:

1.​ Individual circumstances, experiences of the applicant, and country conditions;

2.​ How well the case is prepared and documented;

3.​ The amount of harm (persecution) that have already resulted and the harm that would or might result;

4.​ How the applicant is prepared for the asylum interview (must be found credible and genuine);

5.​ Policies of the US towards applicants from particular countries.

In addition to proving a well-founded fear of persecution, asylum seekers need to pass thorough background checks before being granted asylum status.

A person can apply for asylum EVEN if he/she has no legal immigration status in the U.S. (e.g., the status has expired). After the asylum application is accepted by USCIS, the person can legally remain in the country while his or her application is pending. If everything goes well at the asylum interview, asylum will be granted and the person may stay in the U.S. indefinitely, as long as the country conditions remain the same. If the asylum is not granted, the case will be referred to an Immigration Court, where the applicant gets another chance to present his or her case before an Immigration Judge (e.g., Defensive Asylum).

An asylum applicant can apply for a work authorization (EAD) within 150 days from the date of filing the initial asylum application.

If asylum is denied by an Immigration Judge, the applicant may file an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals.

How does someone gain refugee status?

To qualify for refugee resettlement in the U.S., a person must come from a country designated by the U.S. Department of State and meet the definition of a refugee by proving that he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, membership in a social group, political opinion, or national origin. In addition, a refugee must fit into one of a set of "priority" categories, which factor in degree of risk to the refugee’s life, membership in certain groups of special concern to the U.S., and existence of family members in the U.S.