Families escaping violence and persecution in their home countries, including from unprecedented and growing humanitarian crises in Latin America, the Caribbean, Afghanistan and parts of Africa often undertake a dangerous journey to seek safety in the United States.

Here’s how the process works:

What is asylum?

Asylum is a form of protection granted to individuals who can demonstrate that they are unable or unwilling to return to their country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of:

The right to seek asylum was incorporated into international law following the atrocities of World War II. Congress adopted key provisions of the Refugee Convention (including the international definition of a refugee) into U.S. immigration law when it passed the Refugee Act of 1980.

Lincy Sopall, who was granted asylum in the U.S., sits at a desk holding a pencil and looking at a sheet of paper. Her supplies for her fashion design studio are behind her.
Lincy Sopall, a transgender woman who faced abuse and persecution in Honduras, received asylum in the U.S. in 2018 and works as a fashion designer. She says of her decision to flee: "I had only two choices: leave Honduras and live or stay and die."
Photo: Andrew Oberstadt for the IRC

Who is an asylum seeker?

An asylum seeker is someone who has fled their home in search of safety and protection in another country. Because they cannot obtain protection in their home country, they seek it elsewhere. Asylum seekers may be of any age, gender, socio-economic status or nationality—though the majority come from regions of the world that are suffering from conflict, disaster and weak rule of law.

“Asylee” is the term used in the U.S. for people who have been granted asylum. Under U.S. immigration law, a person granted asylum is legally allowed to remain in the country without fear of deportation. They qualify to work and travel abroad and can apply for their spouse or children under the age of 21 to join them. Asylees have the opportunity to become permanent residents, and eventually, citizens, provided that they meet all other requirements.

To be granted asylum, one must meet the definition of a refugee. However, international law recognizes that the refugee status determination process can be lengthy and complex. Therefore, asylum seekers should receive certain protections before a state has officially recognized them as refugees. Asylum seekers begin their process either at the U.S. border or within the U.S.

"A refugee is inherently a refugee even if a government hasn’t yet made that determination," says IRC senior director for asylum and legal protection Olga Byrne. "If you meet that definition and you’re fleeing danger, you should not be penalized for your manner of entry, and you should not be turned away at the border to a country where you’d face persecution."

Read Natalia's story of having to flee her home in Honduras and travel thousands of miles, determined to find a safe place to raise her children.

Is seeking asylum legal?

Yes, seeking asylum is legal. Asylum seekers must be in the U.S. or at a port of entry (an airport or an official land crossing) to request the opportunity to apply for asylum.

"There’s no way to ask for a visa or any type of authorization in advance for the purpose of seeking asylum,” says Byrne. “You just have to show up.”

What about asylum seekers bussed to cities like New York?

In the past year, a number of states have been sending asylum seekers who arrive in the U.S. to different parts of the country, including New York City. 

Asylum seekers have been arriving in cities and states across the U.S. for years. While communities at the southern border have for decades provided reception services to help people with their immediate needs, there is less structured support provided in interior U.S. communities. There is currently no established, coordinated system nor harmonized legal framework for this type of humanitarian reception across the U.S.

Through the IRC’s long-term experience serving asylum-seekers, we know that an orderly and compassionate system is possible. In New York and elsewhere, local communities have consistently shown their willingness to welcome asylum seekers, and the IRC is working closely with governments and nonprofit groups, both at the border and in the interior, to provide training and resources in case management, humanitarian reception and legal assistance. In 2023, we served nearly 50,000 people in need of protection in the U.S.

Establishing an organized, humane and safe reception system not only means that people fleeing violence and persecution are treated with dignity while they navigate the legal process but also ensures local communities providing this welcome do not shoulder the responsibility alone. A safe, orderly and humane process involves information, timely/efficient processing and humanitarian reception. All levels of government and nonprofit organizations should work together to achieve this around the country.

How do people seek asylum at the border?

Despite established rights under U.S. and international law, the US government has severely restricted access to asylum at the border since 2016.

What was "Remain in Mexico?"

A policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Remain in Mexico” forced certain asylum seekers to wait out their U.S. immigration court cases in Mexico with little or no access to legal counsel. Although a federal court blocked the Biden Administration’s attempts to end this program, the Supreme Court later ruled in the administration’s favor.

For over three years, MPP impacted more than 75,000 asylum seekers, requiring them to wait out their U.S. court hearings in Mexico–mostly in northern border towns. There they faced the often impossible expectations to gather evidence and prepare for a trial conducted in English while struggling to keep their families safe.

“As Mexico receives historic numbers of new asylum claims and the U.S. continues to implement policies that push asylum seekers back into Mexico, humanitarian infrastructure in the country is increasingly strained and more people are stuck in highly vulnerable situations,” explains Rafael Velásquez, country director for the IRC in Mexico.

Here in Tijuana, we’re in exactly the same conditions that people are fleeing from.

What was Title 42? 

In March 2020, the Trump Administration implemented a public health rule during the COVID-19 pandemic to turn away asylum seekers at the border–without giving them a chance to present their cases for asylum. The rule was commonly referred to as “Title 42” because the legal authority referenced by the policy is in Title 42 of the U.S. Code.

Between March 2020 and May 2023, Title 42 was used to justify nearly 3 million expulsions under the pretext of public health. Public health officials agreed that Title 42 did not protect people from COVID-19 and drove up the number of encounters at the border as people crossed repeatedly. This rule faced a number of legal challenges for undermining the U.S.' obligations to asylum seekers under domestic and international law. There was and is no public health rationale for denying people their legal right to claim asylum at the U.S. border. 

Title 42 ended on May 11, 2023, coinciding with the end of the federal public health order for COVID-19. However, the next day, on May 12, 2023, President Biden implemented the ‘asylum ban’, which continues to undermine the rights of asylum seekers at the U.S.–Mexico border.

What is President Biden’s “Asylum Ban”?

While the IRC welcomed the end of Title 42, President Biden’s asylum ban’ bars asylum seekers who passed through another country on their way to the southern U.S. border unless they had previously applied for (and been denied) asylum elsewhere or were lucky enough to secure a limited appointment time at a port of entry through a new U.S. government app for smartphones, called CBP One.

This policy stands in stark contrast to President Biden’s commitments to overhaul inhumane asylum and deportation processes. It turns asylum protections into a lottery system, often leaving the protection of vulnerable people to chance, while many remain in dangerous conditions. 

This does not meet the criteria for how an asylum system should work.  

In the IRC's Welcome Center for asylum seekers, a husband and wife sit with their back to the camera as they discuss their journey as asylum seekers. The wife is holding their 2-year-old daughter.
19-year-old Stephanie and her 22-year-old husband Thomas were forced to flee Honduras with their two-year-old daughter, Judy, because of gang violence.
Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

The impact of restrictive policies 

The impact of Remain in Mexico alongside nearly 3 million Title 42 expulsions, and now often long waits to request asylum at ports of entry, has required Mexico to fulfill growing humanitarian needs as asylum seekers wait, sometimes for years, to seek safety in the U.S. Families are finding themselves at risk of murder, rape, extortion and other violence. Organized criminal networks and human smugglers have targeted desperate asylum seekers and profited from the border policies that deny them their rights. A recent IRC survey found that 4 in 10 people displaced throughout Mexico had been victims of at least one crime while in the country, such as robbery and kidnapping. In fact, the main safety risk identified by men and women was related to kidnappings or forced disappearance (18% and 16% respectively).

“Here in Tijuana, we’re in exactly the same conditions that people are fleeing from, everything from cartels and violence to gang presence,” says Kathy Kruger, who works for IRC partner Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Mexico. Local shelters and organizations like hers have made heroic efforts to help asylum seekers despite strained resources.

Language barriers and racism have made the situation particularly dangerous for Black asylum seekers, as they face discrimination and violence on their journey and at the border. In just one example, the Haitian Bridge Alliance and Espacio Migrante documented extensive evidence of discrimination in Tijuana, particularly as it related to accessing services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those asylum seekers who do make it to the U.S. will eventually have to make their case to stay in immigration court. There, the outcome can be vastly different depending on whether or not they can access legal representation. Unlike in the U.S. criminal legal system, asylum seekers are not guaranteed a government-funded lawyer. One study found that asylum seekers who had submitted an asylum application before the immigration court were five times more likely to be granted asylum if they had a lawyer. (To learn more, read IRC staff attorney Kayla Moore's account of an asylum seeker who had to make his case without a lawyer.)

Where do asylum seekers in the U.S. come from?

A  substantial number of asylum seekers are fleeing violence, persecution and natural disasters like in Haiti and northern Central America. Asylum seekers also come from Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil, India, Eritrea, Ghana, Ethiopia and Cameroon. Some Afghans and many people displaced by the war in Ukraine have also crossed the border from Mexico to ask for asylum.

"Mixed migration through Mexico—usually onwards to the United States—has been a longstanding mechanism for people fleeing violence and conflict from the Caribbean and Central and South America,” explains Velásquez. “However, we have seen a particular increase in the number of asylum seekers from all over the world transiting through the country, including from places as distant as Asia, Africa and Europe."

Maria sits across the table from her daughter, watching her make a bracelet.
Maria* and her two children had been in Juárez, Mexico for five months after death threats from local gangs forced them to flee their home in Honduras. When she arrived at the U.S. border to claim asylum, she was turned away under Title 42.
Photo: Paul Ratje for the IRC

People living in northern Central American countries are enduring violence akin to a war zone.

Honduras is considered one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America, with homicide rates being among the highest ever recorded in the region. Gender-based violence is rampant; one woman is killed every 28 hours. With chronic gang violence, extreme weather caused by climate change and the impacts of COVID-19 worsening the crisis, the number of people in need of aid has more than doubled since 2020.

“More than anything in Honduras, I felt fear,” explains Maria*, a 37-year-old mother of two who was forced to flee with her family after receiving death threats from organized criminal groups. “When you don’t give them money, they threaten to kill you.”

The IRC has also warned that the ongoing crises in Ecuador and Haiti will shape migration in Latin America throughout 2024.

The conflict between Ecuador’s government and criminal armed groups is driving safety concerns while economic pressures simultaneously erode livelihoods. Homicides in Ecuador surged by 245% from 2020 to 2022. Military operations aimed at controlling criminal organizations pose the danger of escalating violence, causing harm to civilians and triggering displacements as individuals seek refuge from their homes in search of safety.

A growing number of Ecuadorians are leaving their crisis-stricken country. In 2023 there was a 75% increase in the number of Ecuadorians navigating the treacherous Darién Gap, highlighting their desperation to escape circumstances at home

In Haiti, killings and kidnappings are on the rise, with significant swaths of the capital city Port-au-Prince controlled by criminal groups. Gangs also have control over ports and transport routes, blocking the flow of basic goods and hampering humanitarian access to deliver aid. Nearly half of Haiti’s population requires humanitarian assistance, including almost 362,000 people who have been internally displaced. Food insecurity is expected to worsen across the country, exacerbating conditions for the almost 5 million Haitians who are already experiencing crisis or worse levels of food insecurity.

After they flee their home, asylum seekers must survive the extremely dangerous journey north, the path fraught with gang violence similar to the areas they are fleeing; gender-based violence targeting women, girls and the LGBTQ+ community; the risk of human trafficking of children, teens and women; and, for Black asylum seekers especially, racism and discrimination.

In a makeshift encampment in Mexico, a Haitian family--a mom, dad and young daughter--look straight at the camera while sitting on the ground next to their suitcases and blankets.
A Haitian family in a makeshift encampment in Mexico where they have been waiting to claim asylum in the U.S. The Biden Administration has used Title 42 to turn away Haitians and other asylum seekers at the border.
Photo: Getty

What must President Joe Biden do to help asylum seekers?

President Biden has already expanded pathways for the resettlement of people from Latin America and issued a number of executive orders impacting asylum seekers at the U.S. border, including one that creates a task force to reunite separated families. 

However, the Biden Administration should stop defending its ‘asylum ban’, which a federal court found violates U.S. law. Currently, this rule remains in effect while the government negotiates to settle the case challenging it but the U.S. should recommit to long-held values of providing access to refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution. Here are some solutions the administration can pursue to adapt the asylum system to current displacement realities while treating people with dignity.

“This is a matter of political will and policy,” says Byrne. “If the Biden administration gets it right, the U.S. can credibly urge the international community to step up and share responsibility worldwide. If not, the consequences will be measured in lives lost and in regional and political instability."

Humanity must underpin the pathway to order for our immigration system. Instead of ineffective, short-sighted, dangerous deterrent measures, the United States must pursue smarter, more cost-efficient, and effective measures that uphold the right to asylum while also creating a more orderly system for host communities and forcibly displaced people. The U.S. sets an example for others with their actions on the global stage. Therefore, the goal should be to create a humane system that is sustainable, predictable and fair. To that end, we call for investments in humanitarian reception at the border, information services, case management programs and expedited work permits for asylum applicants.

Learn the myths and facts behind “border strengthening measures” proposed in Congress.

How does the IRC help asylum seekers? 

The IRC provides critical support to asylum seekers on both sides of the U.S. southern border, including the provision of transitional shelter, humanitarian assistance, acute medical care and legal orientation. Throughout the U.S., the IRC also provides legal services, case management, medical evaluations and other services to asylum seekers in 29 offices.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the IRC is responding to the needs of migrants and members of the host communities in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru as well as through local partners in Venezuela; supporting people at risk of violence and displacement in northern Central America; and providing aid along the main displacement corridors in Mexico. In December 2022, the IRC launched a response through emergency donations and longer-term support to Haitian partners working in Port-au-Prince.

In recent years, we launched critical information services for asylum seekers and vulnerable communities: InfoPa’lante in Colombia, CuéntaNos in northern Central America and InfoDigna in Mexico are all part of our global Signpost project with partners including Mercy Corps, Google, Microsoft, Twilio, Cisco, Tripadvisor and Box. The digital platform includes an interactive map that connects asylum seekers and migrants to shelters, health care providers and other services. An additional service, ImportaMi, serves unaccompanied children who recently arrived in the U.S

How can I help asylum seekers?

Donate to help the IRC provide critical aid to refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. 

Learn about more ways you can help support refugees and asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border.