Asylum Facts: Backgrounder

SILVER SPRING, Maryland — ­­Current events and political rhetoric have pushed the U.S. asylum system into the spotlight. Here are some key facts about the legal grounding of our asylum system.

Despite public rhetoric around the migrants traveling through Mexico, there is no crisis at our southern border. The government’s own data shows border apprehensions have fallen significantly since the 1980s and ‘90s, and are around a 40-year low. Similar traveling groups of migrants have been organized for years. As demonstrated by the most recent example in April, many participants resettle along the way and do not reach the United States. The great majority of those who reach the border apply for asylum at ports of entry in accordance with the law.

U.S. asylum and refugee law is rooted in international law. In 1968, the United States acceded to the 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which incorporates the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Thirteen years after acceding to the 1967 Protocol, Congress passed, and President Jimmy Carter signed, the 1980 Refugee Act.

These measures followed public outcry about the treatment by the United States and other countries of boatloads of refugees who sought protection from Nazi Germany but were turned away. In the case of the SS St. Louis, more than 900 people were returned to Europe, where 254 died in the Holocaust.

Under U.S. law, a person may apply for asylum at a port of entry or from within the United States. The law explicitly permits people who are in the United States to seek asylum whether they entered with documentation or not. An application for asylum may also be filed as a defense from deportation.

In order to seek asylum at a port of entry, an asylum seeker must declare a fear of being returned to the home country. The asylum seeker is then interviewed by an asylum officer who makes an initial determination whether the individual has a valid asylum claim. If so, he or she is placed into removal (deportation) proceedings for a full hearing before an immigration judge on that asylum claim. If the asylum officer does not find that the asylum claim is valid, and that finding is affirmed by an immigration judge, the individual may be removed from the United States with no rights of appeal.

These laws and procedures for asylum were established by Congress in accordance with U.S. obligations under the international law signed with our allies to protect refugees worldwide. Any of the migrants traveling through Mexico who reach our border should be processed through our asylum system, just as all migrants arriving at our border have been for many years. Access to the asylum process is a part of our laws. The administration must follow that law as enacted by Congress.

Catholic social teaching holds that people have a right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. It also says governments have a right to regulate their borders, and must do so with justice and mercy. See here for further explanation and links to resources.

For more information about asylum law and policy, check out the following resources from our partners and other experts:

Reporters: To interview one of CLINIC’s asylum law experts, contact Patricia Zapor, communications director, at 301-565-4830.