There are many ways in which people born in other countries can legally enter the United States. Most people who immigrate do so through the visa program. The government allows people to reside in the United States if they seek an education here or have received a job offer with a company here. In some cases, relationships, including marriage and biological family ties, can result in the ability to visit or even become a citizen.
However, there are millions of people around the world who do not qualify for visas that may seek to enter the United States. One such group is comprised of asylum seekers. These individuals view entry into the United States as a way of avoiding violence or discrimination in their country of origin. Unlike visas, however, asylum protections only apply to people who are already in the United States.
What is asylum, and whom does it protect?
Asylum is a form of legal protection offered to those who have to flee their country for political reasons. Those reasons could include persecution due to race, religion or culture, belonging to an opposition political party or facing unjust prosecution that violates basic human rights. Typically, when someone seeks asylum, it is implied that the individual or one's family could be at risk of retaliation or violence if he or she returns to one's country of origin.
Many times, asylum protections get extended to members of persecuted minorities facing government mistreatment. Asylum can also offer hope and protection to those who seek to reform unjust political systems in their home country. The United States has two kinds of asylum available to those who fear returning home. Both affirmative asylum and defensive asylum can offer hope to those persecuted abroad.
When you request protections affects what you may qualify for
Those currently residing in the United States can request affirmative asylum processing before they face any threat of removal from the country. Typically speaking, unless there has been a major change in your situation, you must file within a year of entering the United States.
A judge will review your application for asylum. You can legally stay in the country during processing of your application, however, you are unlikely to receive authorization to work.
Those who face removal from the United States due to the expiration of a visa or because of unauthorized entry into the country can seek defensive asylum protection. These cases get processed in a court-like environment, with the asylum seeker arguing against a representative from the United States government (typically an attorney with Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
Careful planning for defensive asylum is critical, because a failed request could result in enforcement actions, including removal from the United States.