The caravan of migrants camped out at the U.S.-Mexico border this week has focused fresh attention on the process of seeking asylum.
The caravan, which traveled through Mexico from Central America and reached the U.S. border over the weekend, includes an estimated 150 migrants who are seeking asylum status out of fear of persecution in their home countries.
President Donald Trump has been openly critical of asylum, tweeting his concerns over what he says are lax immigration laws that improperly allow immigrants into the country.
Here’s what you need to know about asylum law in the U.S.
What is asylum?
In 1948, the United Nations passed a declaration of human rights that recognized asylum as a method for immigrants to escape persecution in their home country. Three years later the U.S. participated in the UN’s Refugee Convention of 1951, which established the legal framework for protecting refugees. Asylum seekers gained formal protections under U.S. law with the Refugee Act of 1980, which created a system for admitting refugees into the country.
Generally, asylum is meant to serve as a humanitarian protection under international law, said Cori Alonso-Yoder, an attorney who helps run the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University.
“Most basically, people who seek asylum are afraid to return to their countries of origin, though the law requires that this fear meet certain standards for asylum to be granted,” she said.
People who are granted asylum status can apply for permanent residence after one year, obtain a social security card, and work lawfully in the country.
Who qualifies for asylum?
Under federal law, anyone from another country can seek asylum — and therefore entry into the U.S. — by claiming to have fled their countries out of fear of persecution over their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Immigrants are eligible to apply for asylum for up to one year after their entry into the U.S., and can apply whether they entered the country legally or illegally. Immigrants who have been in the country longer than one year can also apply for asylum status if they meet certain criteria, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. More recently, asylum seekers have also been granted status due to their gender and sexual orientation.
Asylum seekers typically come from a wide range of cultural background and socioeconomic status, said Michelle Stilwell, a civil rights attorney.
“These are people that are overlooked by their own government, that can’t seek help in their own country,” Stilwell said. “So they’re literally coming here just to save their lives and to live in some sort of relative safety.”
Opponents, including Trump, have argued that immigrants take advantage of the system to gain entry into the U.S. “People come here and they put in a claim for political asylum without merit because it will get them to the United States,” said Ira Mehlman, the media director of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform.
To apply for asylum, applicants are required to file Form I-589, a 12-page document where they must describe the harm they face in their home country in detail. Then, asylum seekers, often with the help of attorneys, have to collect information — such as personal statements, letters from other people, medical reports and photographs — to support their case. That can be a difficult and time consuming process, Stilwell said.
“Anything you can show that will support your claim that you suffered abuse” helps applicants gain asylum, Stillwell said.
Applications for asylum have increased in recent years. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the number of new asylum applications rose from 43,312 in fiscal year 2012 to 141,695 in fiscal year 2017. The rise in applications has changed the way asylum cases are processed in the courts, according to Victoria Slatton, an immigration attorney. After filing the application, asylum seekers join a waiting list to interview with an officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
In the past, the process — from filing the application to receiving a final answer approving or rejecting the request — typically took roughly 60 days, Slatton said. But in recent years, “what used to be a 60-day waiting period became anywhere from a two- to five-year waiting period,” Slatton said.
The process changed again in January, when the Trump administration announced that it would prioritize processing recently-filed asylum applications over applications that have been pending for years. The new policy is often called “last in, first out.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has said the shift was made to eliminate the backlog of asylum cases. In a statement in January, the agency said the backlog had reached 311,000 pending asylum cases.
“Delays in the timely processing of asylum applications are detrimental to legitimate asylum seekers,” USCIS Director Francis Cissna said in the agency statement. “Lingering backlogs can be exploited and used to undermine national security and the integrity of the asylum system.”
Some immigration lawyers say the change made it harder to assemble documentation on short notice for applicants whose cases get fast-tracked.
“Where I usually have a few years to put these cases together, I’ve only had a month, so right now I’m really scrambling,” Slatton said.
The pressure of assembling all the evidence needed to make a case on short notice can be “extremely, extremely, challenging,” Stilwell said. “ If you can’t collect enough evidence in time, you’re not going to get granted asylum.”
Language barriers also make the system difficult for people to navigate, Alonso-Yoder said. Many of her clients who struggle with English and understanding the U.S. legal system miss important deadlines for filing paperwork, she said.
Vicki Marroquin Vasquez, 32, didn’t know what asylum was when she immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala in 2002.
When Vasquez applied for protections based on her sexual orientation and transgender status in 2010, she had difficulties telling her story because her first language is Mam, an indigenous Mayan language. In an interview, she said had to secure a translator and also explain why her application had been delayed.
“I didn’t know my own rights. I landed in a foreign country and couldn’t even order my own food,” said Vasquez, whose asylum application was approved in 2011.
Juan Fuentes, an El Salvadoran immigrant who was granted asylum status last year, described a years-long process marked by waiting and confusion. Still, Fuentes said he was grateful his case was heard before the new changes went into effect this year.
“When I came to this country, I wanted to be legal. I didn’t know how I’d do it, but I wanted status,” Fuentes said. “If I was still in El Salvador, I wouldn’t be alive.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated when Vicki Marroquin Vasquez applied for and obtained asylum status. Vazquez applied for asylum in 2010, and the application was approved in 2011.