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Asylum: History and FAQs

A Brief History of Asylum

Asylum status is historically entwined and chronically confused with refugee status. Our modern-day understanding of refugee status was born of the horrors of World War II and the subsequent number of people displaced due to the global conflict. Following the war, the United Nations (UN) formed. In collaboration with the UN, the United States allowed over 40,000 displaced people to enter according to a preset quota allotment (as legal refugee status did not yet exist). 

It wasn’t until a few years later, with the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, that people seeking safety in the United States were granted a particular legal status of “displaced person”. This act allowed thousands of Europeans to be resettled into the United States, but was criticized for its anti-Semitism (which was not remedied until 1950) and did not provide a uniform and comprehensive definition such as what we now use to define “refugee.”

Three years later, the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention created the first uniform definition for displaced people: refugee. A refugee is defined as, “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” 

The United States officially adopted this definition with the Refugee Act of 1980. This act also tasked the President with deciding the maximum number of refugees the U.S. could resettle each year and established the legal basis for seeking asylum. For the next two decades, refugee and asylum admissions in the United States were managed by the former Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).

Following the September 11, 2001, (“9/11”) attack on the World Trade Center, however, the United States refugee and asylum admissions program was put on hold for more than two months. Subsequently, INS split into three organizations: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), all of which are currently active and are housed under one umbrella agency called the Department of Homeland Security. Of the three, USCIS oversees the United States refugee admissions and affirmative asylum claims. The Department of Justice and Customs and Border Protection are responsible for defensive asylum claims.*

Since the 2010 fiscal year, USCIS has granted asylum to more than 275,000 asylum-seekers needing to be resettled in the United States. 

To find out more about the current state of the asylum program in the U.S., you can sign up for our Immigration Newsletter, where we review the month’s important updates, or you can search “asylum” in the search tab of the Do Justice blog

The Canadian asylum system has many key differences from the US. If you have questions about the specifics of the Canadian system please contact our partners at the Center for Public Dialogue.

There are two forms of asylum in the United States: affirmative and defensive. People seeking affirmative asylum are those who are not in removal proceedings, meaning the United States government is not actively seeking to deport them. Most affirmative asylum seekers entered the United States using some form of temporary visa or were able to cross the border undetected and are voluntarily availing themselves of the protection of the United States by way of the asylum program. People seeking defensive asylum are doing so as a remedy to removal proceedings, meaning the United States government is actively seeking to deport them after they were detained at or near a port of entry and were determined to be in the United States without lawful status, necessitating the initiation of removal proceedings even where the people clearly indicated a well-founded fear of return to their country of origin. Both methods of seeking asylum are lawful with precedent in both international law and United States law.

Fast Facts

  • Requesting asylum is both lawful and a legal right provided for under international and U.S. immigration law and treaties. 
  • Many countries allow asylum requests, not just the United States. 
  • Asylees (people who are granted asylum) are thoroughly vetted for potential threats to national security by way of comprehensive background checks and rigorous interviews.
  • Asylum status is one of the most difficult immigration remedies to obtain due to the very narrow definition of “refugee” which is what the U.S. legal system uses to determine if a person warrants asylum status in the United States.   
  • For helpful infographics and statistics about asylum, check out this resource from Lighthouse Immigration Advocates.

Asylum is a form of legal protection that allows people fearing persecution or harm in their native country to remain in the United States. Asylum seekers can apply for this protection from within the country or at a port of entry (see footnote 1 for a more expansive explanation of the two methods of seeking asylum). 

The legal concept of asylum is not new. The second World War displaced over 7 million people around the globe and, as a result, the United States created its first formal refugee and asylum policies. Around the same time, asylum was included in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, drafted by representatives from all over the world. This declaration for the first time laid out “fundamental human rights to be universally protected.” 

Asylum is also included in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. All three of these documents specifically outline that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
For more information on the asylum process, explore this fact sheet from the National Immigration Forum.

While some people use the terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker/refugee claimant” interchangeably, the two do have procedural differences. The primary difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker is that refugees are granted refugee status while still outside of the United States. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, apply for asylum upon arrival at marked entry points or, once already inside of the United States, they may apply within one year of their arrival.

Ultimately, refugees and asylees gain status based on the same fundamental criteria, but their method of arrival is different. Another key difference is that refugees usually have social and financial assistance through refugee resettlement agencies for three to six months after their arrival to the United States, while asylees must make their own way. For more information on the technical differences between refugees and asylum seekers, explore this fact sheet from Justice for Immigrants.

To qualify for asylum, individuals need to fear persecution due to political opinion (or the political opinion they are perceived to have), race, religion, nationality, or membership in a “particular social group.” Persecution can mean harm or threats of harm to the person seeking asylum, the person’s family, or people similar to the person.

Our current asylum process does not generally grant asylum to people who have fled their homes because of extreme poverty, natural disasters, or even violence—unless that violence is specifically motivated by the categories listed above and they can clearly demonstrate the government failed or is unwilling to protect them from persecution.

People who are granted asylum are called asylees.

Scripture is clear about God’s call to welcome the stranger—from warnings that the way that we treat foreigners reveals the state of our relationship with God (Mal. 3:5), to the call to practice hospitality (Rom. 12:13), to God’s oft-repeated refrain to the Israelites: “Love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). Jesus even said that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him (Matt. 25:40)!

For a comprehensive list of Scripture passages that include the call to welcome the foreigner and stranger, visit the Worship Resources tab on the Journey with Me toolkit.

The Christian Reformed Church has long proclaimed that the Gospel must be upheld in both word and deed. This means that we, as Christians, are called not only to echo God’s call to welcome the stranger in our conversations, but in our actions as well. This can look like volunteering to welcome asylees with your family or your church, making space in your budget to support organizations doing immigration work, or advocating for asylum seekers to Members of Congress.

For advocacy opportunities in the U.S., visit our Action Center.

For advocacy opportunities in Canada, visit our partners at the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue.

Yes. Similar to refugees, asylum seekers are thoroughly vetted before being granted asylum in the United States. Seeking asylum is a rigorous process, involving interviews with USCIS or Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Department of Justice and extensive security and intelligence vetting through the FBI, the Department of Defense, the National Counterterrorism Center, and other databases.

In Canada, refugee claimants go through an extensive screening process through the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Since this screening process was enacted in 2001, “the number of claimants found to represent any kind of security concern has been statistically insignificant.

We do not advocate for illegal immigration. Since requesting asylum is legal, migrants arriving in the U.S. (including those at the U.S./Mexico border) to request asylum are exercising their legal right. Asylum cannot be requested before arrival. In other words, someone has to come to the United States to request asylum. This is part of U.S. (and international) law.  

People can request asylum in two ways. 1) Affirmative asylum: Within a year of arrival, individuals can apply for asylum, regardless of whether they entered the country through an official entry point or through an unmarked entry. 2) Defensive asylum: Individuals who are already in removal proceedings after being apprehended for lacking a valid visa or status in the United States may request asylum, where a judge will decide whether or not to grant asylum.

Both options allow for a lawful petition for asylum despite potentially entering the country at an unmarked entry point or without presenting themselves to an official at the border. To read more about the asylum process, check out this fact sheet from the National Immigration Forum.

In its 2010 mandate for the denomination regarding immigration, Synod encouraged “congregations and their individual members to speak out against and seek to reform laws and practices concerning the treatment of immigrants that appear to be unduly harsh or unjust.” It is harsh and unjust to subject vulnerable people to further vulnerability and risk of harm when we as the church have been called to welcome and provide refuge for those who suffer. Synod additionally confirmed that, “citizenship in the kingdom of God obligates believers to the highest law of love for God and neighbor above all, and the exercise of this love should lead believers to advocate for laws that will mandate the just and humane treatment of immigrant peoples.

For many individuals around the world, their government cannot or will not help them. Their government may be corrupt and seek retaliation or retribution for political disagreement; police may work with gangs and threaten the lives of young people and families; natural disaster and famine may leave a large community, or even a whole country, in a vulnerable position whereby the government is unable to protect them. 

Many people chose to flee to the United States for safety simply because they feel it is the best option to keep their family safe from a threat in their home country.

While people can apply for asylum at ports of entry, it is also possible to apply for asylum if apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol between ports of entry and up to one year after entering the country at an unmarked entry point. For more information on the asylum process at points of entry and between points of entry, explore this flow chart from Bipartisan Policy Center

Some people who request asylum will have their cases processed at their local USCIS Asylum Office, where an asylum officer will interview them to determine whether the applicant has a credible asylum claim. Others will have their case reviewed and decided by an Immigration Court. Individuals who apply for “Affirmative” asylum (see description in Question 7 and footnote 1) will be interviewed by an Asylum Officer, and, if approved, will be granted asylum status immediately. If rejected, individuals will have a second opportunity to plead their case before an Immigration Judge. If someone applies for defensive asylum (see description in Does CRCNA Social Justice advocate for illegal immigration? and "A Brief History" footnote), their case will heard by an Immigration Judge in Immigration Court in a litigation-style format where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Chief Counsel questions the applicant in an often combative and harsh manner.