Individuals who seek asylum in the United States must meet the definition of “refugee” as provided by the Immigration and Nationality Act: essentially, a refugee is anyone who is either unwilling or unable to return to his or her home country because persecution (or well-founded fear of persecution) on the basis of race, religion, or social or political beliefs awaits the individual.
A person can apply for asylum at a port of entry into the United States (ports of entry include air-ports, seaports, and border crossings) or any time up to one year from the date of entry. The standard application, known as INS Form I-589, is the first step. There is no fee for filing this form. After the form is filled out, it must be sent to a processing center (which center depends on the place from which it is mailed.) All questions on the form must be answered, even if the answer is “none” or “unknown.” If even one question is left blank, the entire form will be deemed incomplete and mailed back to the applicant. Applicants who do not speak English must find a competent translator to complete the form; INS does not supply translation services.
Applicants who wish to go to work while waiting for their application to be approved must wait 150 days from the date the application was accepted by INS. Accepting work also requires filling out a separate Employment Authorization Form.
Once the application has been received and processed, the applicant will be called in for an interview with an asylum officer. Applicants are allowed to bring legal counsel and witnesses to the interview. (As with the application, the asylum seeker is responsible for providing a translator if he or she does not speak English.) Usually the asylum officer will issue a decision that will be reported to the applicant at a later date, although officers sometimes announce their decision at the end of the interview.