Yes, It’s Legal to Seek Immigration Asylum in the United States

What you need to know about how immigration asylum does—and doesn’t—work.
Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Oct 10, 2023

Paul fled his home in Nigeria because Igbo Christians like him were being killed for their faith. “I did not want to die, so I came to America,” he said.

But like many people seeking safety and freedom in the United States, Paul instead found himself locked up in immigration detention. He spent 21 months behind bars in upstate New York, right as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading in correctional facilities.

“We all felt sick the first night,” he said. “We slept in compartments with four bunk beds. Sometimes we were jammed together, all crowded. When coronavirus came, I was terrified . . . . We knew that if just one person catches it, it’s over. It turned out 49 were infected, probably more.”

With the help of a publicly funded attorney, Paul was able to win release from immigration detention and apply for asylum. Others are not so lucky, either languishing in detention for years or deported back to the dangerous situations they fled.

Seeking asylum is legal and the United States has accepted people fleeing danger for centuries. Despite this fact, many misconceptions persist about asylum seekers like Paul. Too often, asylum seekers are demonized, criminalized, imprisoned, and treated as political pawns in an immigration system that is not equipped, nor designed, to humanely handle its responsibilities.

Here are some answers to common questions about asylum seekers and their rights.

What is asylum?

Asylum is a form of protection that allows people to remain in the United States and avoid deportation back to a country where they fear persecution or harm because of their identity, religion, or political beliefs. Under both U.S. and international law, people who face danger in their homelands have the right to go to other nations to seek safety and to have their requests for asylum considered.

To apply for asylum In the United States, a person must be physically present either in the country or at a port of entry. They must also meet the definition of refugee shared by the United Nations Refugee Protocol and the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980.

Where are asylum seekers coming from?

As of May 2023, the United Nations reported that more than 110 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. Of these people, 5.4 million are seeking asylum. More than half of all refugees and others in need of international protection come from Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine. In 2021, 45 percent of refugees granted asylum in the United States were from China, El Salvador, Guatemala, Turkey, and Venezuela.

What happens to people after they seek asylum?

In the United States’ chaotic and dysfunctional immigration system, there is no clear answer. Some people, like Paul, are detained in jail-like settings for months or years, despite decades of research that shows detaining people is not necessary to ensure they appear for immigration court proceedings. Others are sent to overwhelmed government shelters, and some wait in communities with their families as their requests for asylum are considered. This process takes an average of 4.25 years and can involve multiple government agencies. More than 1.3 million asylum applications were awaiting resolution as of May 2023.

Do people in the United States support granting asylum to people seeking safety?

Yes—multiple polls show that the majority of people in the United States support protections for people who flee persecution and torture in their homelands. According to one Pew Research Center poll, 72 percent believe that accepting civilians trying to escape war and violence in their homelands should be an important goal of U.S. immigration policy.

Are asylum seekers bringing drugs with them across the southern border?

People seeking asylum at the Mexican border are often accused of smuggling drugs like fentanyl into the country, but virtually no fentanyl is seized from migrants seeking asylum. From 2019 to 2021, after the government banned most travel across the southern border and made seeking asylum nearly impossible, annual deaths from fentanyl in the United States doubled.

While illegal fentanyl does travel north into the United States from Mexico, the majority of fentanyl traffickers are U.S. citizens. In 2023, 93 percent of fentanyl seizures occurred at official border crossings or legal checkpoints, and nearly all involved people who are legally authorized to cross the border—more than half of whom were U.S. citizens. Undocumented people traveling on foot across the southern border represent only a tiny fraction of people trafficking opioids across the border.

Fentanyl overdoses are a serious and increasing problem, but immigrants—including asylum seekers—are not to blame.

How can the United States improve its broken asylum system?

The asylum process is just one part of an immigration system that is outdated, complicated, and unjust; the entire system must be redesigned to meet the migration realities of the 21st century.

Providing legal representation to asylum seekers is one way to protect their rights as they attempt to navigate the extremely complex path to legal residence in the United States. Currently, people facing deportation do not have a right to legal representation at government expense if they cannot afford an attorney. As a result, many people, who are legally eligible for asylum, are instead deported back to the dangerous circumstances they were trying to escape in the first place.

The Fairness to Freedom Act, which would establish a right to federally funded attorneys for all people facing deportation, would help fix this injustice. States can also continue to build publicly funded deportation defense programs to ensure that people who come to this country seeking safety are treated fairly. Through one of these programs, Paul was connected to a New York Immigrant Family Unity Project lawyer who helped secure his release after 21 months in immigration detention and take steps toward receiving asylum. “There is nothing like freedom, even if you don’t have money,” he said. “It feels good to be free.”

As more people come to the United States seeking safety, such legal assistance programs should expand to help immigrants and asylum seekers like Paul. All people seeking safety in the United States deserve respect and a fair chance to access the protections of asylum.