Asylum is available to anyone in the United States, regardless of status, who has been persecuted or has a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. It is also possible to apply for withholding of removal based on the Convention Against Torture.
An asylum application can be difficult to document if the applicant left his or her home country quickly to escape conditions there. Documentation should include an affidavit from the applicant, evidence of country conditions from the Department of State or other independent resources, letters from independent experts and evidence to support the truth of the applicant's personal story. The high level of fraud in asylum applications makes the CIS particularly suspicious, so comprehensive and easy to understand documentation is critically important.
The first step is to file an asylum application (on form I-589) with supporting documentation as described above. Because of the high incidence of fraud, the CIS no longer gives work authorization to all asylum applicants. Rather, asylum applicants are eligible to apply for work authorization (using form I-765) if their application has been pending for more than 180 days or if the case has been approved. The I-765 EAD application can be filed after 150 days.
An asylum applicant is eligible to study while their application is pending, but not to change status unless he or she also holds a valid nonimmigrant visa that allows change of status.
Once the I-589 asylum application is reviewed, the next step is an interview with an asylum officer. This interview at the local CIS office is meant to screen out the fraudulent cases, and approve those cases that are extremely well documented. If the case is not approved at this interview and the applicant is out of status, he or she will be referred to the Immigration Court (EOIR) for a more formal hearing before a judge. If the case is not approved and the applicant is in status, no further action will be taken.
Once the asylum application is approved, the asylee may apply for adjustment of status to Legal Permanent Residence (LPR) one year after the approval. However, due to current processing backlogs, the asylee may not become a permanent resident for several years. This creates an awkward situation where someone with an approved asylum claim will spend years with only a form letter of approval as documentation of immigration status. An asylee is not required to obtain a work card (EAD), as he or she will have work authorization incident to status, but many choose to obtain an EAD so as to have a more formal proof of status.
Form I-589 can be downloaded from the USCIS website. Applying for asylum can be a difficult process. While it is not required that an applicant have a lawyer, it may make the process go more smoothly. Non-profit organizations like the PAIR Project in Massachusetts are good resources for low-income applicants who may not be able to afford an attorney. This list has contact information for free legal service providers in each state.