Families escaping violence and persecution in their home countries, including from unprecedented and growing humanitarian crises in Latin America and the Caribbean, Afghanistan and parts of Africa, have undertaken a dangerous journey to seek safety in the United States.
People arriving at the U.S. border have the right to request asylum without being criminalized, turned back, used for political stunts or separated from their children. 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:
- membership in a particular social group,
- or political opinion.
The right to seek asylum was incorporated into international law following the atrocities of World War II. Congress adopted key provisions of the Geneva Refugee Convention (including the international definition of a refugee) into U.S. immigration law when it passed the Refugee Act of 1980.
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, travel abroad and 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."
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 recent months, 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 2022, we provided support to over 62,000 asylum seekers, unaccompanied children and other vulnerable people seeking protection in the U.S.
Establishing an organized, humane and safe reception system not only means that those 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, fast 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, people’s access to asylum at the border was severely limited under the Trump Administration and many of the most severe policies continued well into the Biden Administration.
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 is commonly referred to as “Title 42” because its legal authority derived from 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. This rule faced a number of legal challenges for undermining the U.S.'s obligations to asylum seekers under domestic and international law. There 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 implementation of President Biden’s ‘asylum ban’ 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 managed to receive an appointment 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 campaign promises to overhaul inhumane asylum and deportation processes, since it limits the legal rights of asylum seekers to seek protection in the U.S., leaving the most vulnerable in dangerous conditions.
Update: On July 25, 2023, a federal judge blocked the Biden Administration's asylum ban, calling it "arbitrary and capricious." The International Rescue Committee welcomes the decision, and urges the administration to end its appeal and to instead build a safe, humane, and orderly process at the border.
The impact of restrictive policies
The impact of MPP, alongside nearly 3 million Title 42 expulsions, 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.
“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.
In late March 2023, a fire at a National Migration Institute detention center In Ciudad Juárez resulted in 39 deaths and left others severely injured. “This is proof of the extremely urgent need to ensure that there are systems in place to provide safety for people in need of international protection,” says Velásquez.
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 relates 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 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."
People living in northern Central American countries are enduring violence akin to a war zone.
Honduras is considered the most dangerous country in the region, with a homicide rate of 38 per 100,000 people. Gender-based violence is rampant; one woman is killed every 36 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.”
In Haiti, killings and kidnappings are on the rise, with 40% 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.
In the summer of 2021, the assassination of Haiti's president was followed by a powerful earthquake and a tropical storm that hit within days of one another. Infrastructure and services in Haiti have been decimated in the last decade. Haiti is also experiencing the world’s longest recession, with an estimated 60 percent of the population living in poverty.
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.
What must President Joe Biden do to help asylum seekers?
President Biden has 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, and protect the rights of people in danger to seek safety in the United States.
The U.S. should recommit to long-held values of providing access to refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution. Here are the changes the administration needs to make an asylum system that treats people with dignity a reality.
- Rescind the “Asylum Ban”. Thesefurther restrictions on asylum bars thousands of asylum seekers and returns them to danger. This policy runs counter to domestic and international laws which establish the right to seek asylum and promises made by the Biden administrion to overhaul inhumane asylum policies.
- Address the asylum backlog. The current backlog has forced asylum seekers to endure five to seven-year-long waits. Improving the speed at which asylum claims are decided fairly and with due process is needed to create a more humane and orderly asylum system.
- Invest in smart and humane asylum measures. The U.S. must take a holistic approach to create a smarter, cost-effective and humane asylum system. This includes supporting welcome centers that keep asylum seekers off the streets by providing humane reception, supporting long-term case management, and improving access to information on legal rights and community resources to combat misinformation and trafficking.
- Create a comprehensive humanitarian response in Latin America. The U.S. should work with non-US donors to support humanitarian response plans and work with Latin American countries to harmonize policies that uphold the rights and safety of asylum seekers across the region.
“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."
How does the IRC help asylum seekers?
The IRC provides critical support to asylum seekers on both sides of the U.S. southern border. That includes providing transitional shelter, humanitarian assistance, medical care, legal orientation and travel coordination to more than 50,000 asylum seekers released from U.S. government detention in 2022 alone.
Throughout the U.S., the IRC provides legal services, case management, mental health, medical evaluations and other services to asylum seekers in 28 offices.
In Latin America, the IRC supports vulnerable people in northern Central America and along the main migration corridors in Mexico, from the southern to the northern borders.
The IRC’s work in Latin America includes supporting women’s protection and empowerment, including violence prevention and protection of women, girls and members of the LGBTQ+ community who have been survivors of gender-based violence. We provide cultural orientation and support, as well as economic recovery and development. We also provide health services that include; primary, sexual and reproductive health care, and; mental health and psychosocial support.
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.
After the earthquake that hit Haiti in August 2021, we provided funding to support local organizations FOSREF, FADHRIS and Kay Fanm. Their work includes programs that prevent gender-based violence, maintain mobile health clinics, provide shelter and rebuilding materials, as well as other critical support for Haitians to help address the conditions that are causing many to flee their country.
How can I help asylum seekers?
Take action:Join the thousands of IRC supporters who have called their representatives, written letters and shared our campaigns to help asylum seekers in the U.S.
Donate to help the IRC provide critical aid to refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.