When people come to the U.S. seeking protection because they have suffered persecution or are afraid they will suffer persecution, they are permitted to file for asylum regardless of their immigration status.
U.S. law offers asylum to those people facing persecution in their home countries on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular group.
WATCH: What is Asylum and How Does it Work in the US?
There are two kinds of asylum: affirmative and defensive. An immigrant may claim affirmative asylum within one year of their last arrival in the United States. An immigrant may request defensive asylum while fighting an order of deportation.
During the years 2013-2015, an average of about 25,000 people received asylum each year. Almost twice as many affirmative applicants were approved as defensive applicants.
Applicants must be physically present in the U.S. to apply for asylum.
Current policy is to detain asylum-seekers, often when they arrive at a port of entry. Waiting while their cases go through the courts can mean spending months in a detention center.
“We are closing the doors on so many people, and the first thing that they get when they come here to the U.S. is like ‘OK, we’re going to lock you up,’” said Rosa Santana, a detainee visitation coordinator at First Friends immigrant advocacy group. “We don’t know what these people have been through, their traumas. Putting them in detention is another trauma for them.”
First Friends is a local nonprofit in Jersey City, New Jersey, and its visitation groups visit immigrant detainees at the Elizabeth Detention Center, Hudson County Correctional Center, Bergen County Jail and Essex County Correctional Center-Delaney Hall.
Asylum-seekers must apply within one year from the date of last arrival or show proof of an “exceptional” change based on extraordinary circumstances. Above all, they must prove to the asylum officer or to an immigration court judge that they have a “credible fear” of returning to their home country.
To Judy Pepenella, community organizer at the Conservative Society for Action in New York, asylum is a “touchy” subject.
“I have a problem, personally, and it has to be honesty. You know, just because you have to get out and you don’t have the ability to become a citizen and you don’t want go back, it has to truly be an issue,” Pepenella told VOA.
Pepenella, a Republican and conservative, said though she doesn’t believe in jailing asylum-seekers, each case must be looked at on its merit.
“When they come here, are they gonna become citizens, or are they going to stay on an immigrant or not American basis? If you come, become a citizen, become part of the process, become part of what makes America great,” Pepenella added.
WATCH: Asylum in the US: The Pros and Cons
Future of asylum
The White House wants to tighten standards in the U.S. asylum system.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has claimed the current asylum system is “subject to rampant abuse and fraud” and he called for tighter rules for people seeking asylum in the United States.
Sessions said current policies allow applicants to take advantage of a “broken” court system that is backlogged by about 600,000 cases nationwide, although not all are asylum cases.
Figures from the months of July, August and September of 2016 and 2017, while hardly conclusive, indicate that asylum cases were being adjudicated at a faster rate since Trump took office in 2017 than the previous year — and that the percentages of approval, at least for affirmative cases, have fallen off slightly.
July 2016: 1,957 cases adjudicated; 996 affirmative approvals
August 2016: 2,262 cases adjudicated; 884 affirmative approvals
September 2016: 2,232 cases adjudicated, 967 affirmative approvals
July 2017: 3,934 cases adjudicated; 1,252 affirmative approvals
August 2017: 5,336 cases adjudicated; 1,543 affirmative approvals
September 2017: 4,255 cases adjudicated; 1,513 affirmative approvals
Pepenella struggles with asylum.
“I’m not saying everyone is lying, please make sure you understand that, there are nations that people need help to get out of,” she said.
But Santana sees it in stark, human terms.
“We know that they are not lying. We can hear the desperation, you know, when we talk to them,” she said. “Every day we have tears in our eyes from the stories that we hear. Because we know that people are really risking their lives to come here.”