A Brief History of the Asylum System in the U.S.

So far, our blog has discussed relatively esoteric questions – why you need a legal brief, why the lawyer should accompany you to the asylum interview, why you shouldn’t tell the asylum officer what they want to hear.  However, the longer I am with Alexandre Law, the more I realize, the average person does not have a very good understanding of even the most basic aspects of the asylum system.  What is asylum?  Why does the U.S. government offer this benefit, and how does it relate to the larger immigration system?

In order to understand this question it is important to understand a bit about the history of the asylum system.  The history of asylum in the U.S. goes back to 1951, with the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.  Following the second world war, there were many new countries, some countries no longer existed, and many other countries had their borders redrawn.  The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees sought to solve the problem of tens of millions of displaced people, many without passports, who could not return to their home countries.  This document sets forth the definition of a “refugee” according to the U.N.: “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it..”In 1951 the U.S. did not sign onto the Convention, but did sign on to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which retroactively ratified the 1951 Convention.

What’s the difference between an“asylee” and a “refugee”?  The simplest answer is that a “refugee” lives outside the U.S., while an “asylee” is already present in the country.  However, this is not the most accurate explanation.  As of the end of 2016, there were 22.5 million people worldwide already recognized as refugees, residing in camps, other countries, or displaced within their own countries.  If someone already residing in America wants to apply for asylum, that person needs to demonstrate that their situation meets the definition of a refugee according to the U.N. Convention.  Therefore, all asylees are refugees, but not all refugees are asylees.

In order to apply for asylum, it’s not sufficient to demonstrate that one has suffered persecution in one’s home country; one also has to demonstrate that this persecution was “on account of” one’s “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”For example, at present there are many people from Central America (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) fleeing to America to escape gang violence in their home countries and seeking political asylum.  Unfortunately, most of these asylum seekers do not meet the definition of a refugee, because they were harmed by the gangs for ordinary criminal reasons, not for one of the five reasons outlined in the Convention on Refugees.

Until the 1980’s, political asylum was still a relatively rare phenomenon in the U.S., typically granted in special instances (for instance, for defecting Soviet spies).  Asylum applications began to increase in the early 1980’s, on account of civil wars in central America (particularly El Salvador).  It was at this time that the asylum system opened its first dedicated offices and created a corps of officers trained specifically to adjudicate asylum cases.  Asylum application rates continued to grow throughout the 1990’s, and in 2001 USCIS saw the largest number of asylum applications in history.  Since then, application rates have dropped somewhat, but asylum remains a very important part of the U.S. immigration system; in fiscal year 2015 84,182 people applied for asylum, 40,062 cases were completed and 15,999 cases granted.  In the following blog we will discuss the asylum system in relation to the broader immigration system, and why so many people choose to apply.

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