If you have submitted an application for asylum in the U.S. on your own initiative (“affirmatively”) — that is, to the Asylum Office rather than the Immigration Court -- the next major step in the process (after being called in for biometrics/fingerprinting) will be to attend an interview with an Asylum Officer. Your interview will probably be set within several weeks or months of your mailing in the application (Form I-589) with accompanying documents).
Anyone physically in the United States who is not in Immigration Court can file an asylum claim. For background on eligibility and procedures, see the articles on Nolo’s “Asylum & Refugee Status” page. This article will describe what happens on the day of your interview.
Who Are Asylum Officers?
There are eight asylum offices in the United States with approximately 300 Asylum Officers. Asylum Officers are federal employees who make decisions on asylum applications. They do not handle any other type of immigration application, and take no part in enforcement activities.
Asylum Officers are trained in asylum and refugee law. They undergo sensitivity training and attend weekly training sessions on country conditions around the world.
An Asylum Officer’s job is to figure out who meets the legal definition of a refugee. He or she does this by reading your asylum application and conducting a non-adversarial interview. (Non-adversarial means that the officer is not trying to take an opposing side to yours, but simply to get at the truth of your experience.) The officer is required to ask questions to help determine whether you are a refugee, based on the information in your asylum application and what you say during the interview.
You do not have a choice of which officer you will meet with at your interview. You can, however, request a female officer if you have been subjected to forms of persecution that you would feel uncomfortable discussing with a man.
Should You Bring a Lawyer to the Interview?
Whether or not you used a lawyer to help prepare your application, consider bringing one who is experienced in asylum law to the asylum interview. Lawyers are not supposed to speak during the interview but they can take notes. These notes can be important later in the process if, for example, you have to respond to the officer in writing.
Lawyers are also allowed to give a closing statement at the end of the interview and ask you any important questions they believe the asylum officer forgot to ask.
If you bring an attorney who hasn’t been associated with your case before, the attorney will need to fill out, and have you sign, a form called a “notice of representation” or G-28. Make sure the attorney remembers to submit this to the officer during your interview!
Will You Need to Bring an Interpreter to Your Interview?
If you are not fluent in English you must bring an interpreter to your interview. Even if your English is so-so, it can be very helpful to have an interpreter there, to make sure you don't misunderstand something.
Think about who would be best to accompany you -- ideally, someone who knows how to translate words that you will use in the interview. For example, if you are a Chinese Catholic claiming persecution by the government on account of your religion, bring an interpreter who can translate Catholic doctrinal and religious words into English.
Remind your interpreter to bring identification to the interview. Your interpreter will be asked for this identification and will not be allowed to translate for you if he or she has no identification.
Getting to the Interview on Time and Ready
Do not underestimate the importance of your interview day. Make sure to get a lot of sleep the night before and be ready for an emotional experience. Eat a good meal.
Set up a specific time and place to meet your attorney and interpreter if you are using either. Arrive at your meeting place early, with a copy of your asylum application in hand so you can review what you wrote and think about how you will explain your story to the officer.
Remember that you will be talking about traumatic events in your life, including past persecution or your fear of future persecution, which can be difficult to discuss under the best of circumstances.
In getting ready, think about the fact that asylum interviews are conducted in small offices with closed doors. The purpose is to protect the information you share, but it means you’ll be in a stuffy environment, in close physical proximity to the interviewer. Here are some practical things you can do to help the officer focus:
- Bathe before your interview.
- Do not wear heavy perfume or cologne.
- Do not smoke.
- Try to wear clothes that do not smell of smoke.
- Dress as neatly as possible.
Arriving at the Asylum Office
Asylum Offices typically require that applicants walk through a metal detector before entering the waiting room. Security personnel will look through your bag. Turn off your cell phone now. Completely empty your pockets and place all contents along with your phone and belt into the container for the guard to look through. Follow any instructions the guard may give you.
After walking through the metal detector, you may be directed to a window where you will hand in your interview notice. You should also be able to submit any additional documents at this time. For example, you may have received medical records or affidavits since first submitting your asylum application or you may have found new information about conditions in your country that you want to show the officer. You may be handed a number by which you will be called when the officer is ready to interview you.
This is the time to request a female officer if you are more comfortable being interviewed by one.
Once you have turned in your interview notice, you will be seated and will wait to be called for fingerprints. This fingerprint is different than the one you did at the biometrics center. This print identifies you as the person who submitted the application and alerts the office as to whether you have filed an asylum application under a different name or at a different office.
There may be a very long wait before you are called for your interview. Food and drinks are not usually allowed in the waiting room.
The Interview Begins
When the Asylum Officer is ready to conduct your interview, your name or, more likely, the number handed to you at the window, will be called. Follow the officer into his or her office with your attorney and interpreter. Once inside, the officer will have you stand and swear or affirm that you will tell the truth. After that, you’ll be asked to sit down.
Do tell the truth during your interview. Officers have good instincts and a lot of time to figure out whether you are lying.
An asylum interview should be a sitdown discussion about why you left your country and why you don’t want to go back. (Remain in your chair – it is not considered appropriate to lean on the officer’s desk.)
The officer should have already read your file and researched conditions in your country. The officer should also have run security checks, which could show how many times you’ve entered the United States as well as any criminal activity associated with your name and date of birth.
The officer should begin the interview by explaining what you should expect and assuring you that everything you say is confidential. The officer should also instruct any interpreter as to how he or she should be translating (preferably word for word).
Making Sure the Conversation With the Officer Goes Smoothly
Different officers have different interview styles. Some are brusque and want to hone in on the facts, others take a more nurturing approach. Try not to jump to conclusions about whether the officer’s style indicates whether he or she will likely grant your case.
Instead, try to focus on explaining the facts of your claim by answering whatever questions the officer has. Know that the officer will familiarize him or herself with the situation in your country if he or she does not already know it. Do not say confrontational things to the officer like, “You don’t know what it’s like in my country.”
It is important to testify in detail, even including any facts or incidents that were not mentioned on your asylum application. If you add incidents, however, the officer will likely ask you to explain why you did not set them in your application.
If you don’t understand a question you should ask the officer to repeat it. This point is important. Many officers have accents or speak English so fast you may not understand a question. If this happens, do not make up an answer. This isn’t a test of your English comprehension -- it’s okay to explain that you didn’t understand, and ask the officer to repeat or rephrase a question.
How Long the Interview Will Last
Asylum interviews can be as short as 30 minutes or as long as two hours. Remember that the officer’s job is to figure out whether you are a refugee. The amount of time spent on an interview is specific to your case.
An asylum interview is your time to explain what happened to you and why you don’t want to go home. Your attorney should make sure your testimony is complete.
If you are alone and an officer is not giving you a chance to testify fully, you can ask to see a supervisor. Also ask to see a supervisor if an officer is inappropriate in tone or with his or her questions.
After the Interview
If you are not in lawful status, you will be asked to return to the asylum office to pick up your decision. The decision is usually made within two weeks.
If the officer recommends that you be approved for asylum, you have won your case. You will be given instructions on how to apply for work authorization and you will be able to get a Social Security number. Once additional security checks are completed, you should receive your final approval in the mail along with an I-94 card saying “asylee.” At this point you will no longer need a work authorization card to work.
Asylum applicants in unlawful status who are not granted asylum will be referred to an immigration judge. In this case, when you go to the asylum office for your decision, you will be given a decision telling you when and where to report to immigration court. This is called a “Notice to Appear.”
It is important that you show up in court on the appointed day. If you don’t, the judge can order you removed from the United States. You can renew your asylum application before an Immigration Judge at your hearing. This process is much more involved that the asylum interview, however, so it is even more important that you attempt to hire an immigration attorney to help you.
Applicants who are in lawful status (that is, who have an unexpired visa or other right to be in the U.S.) normally receive their decisions in the mail. If you are approved, the process is similar to the one above. If the officer is not approving your case, you will be mailed a Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID) your claim explaining why asylum is not being granted. You have 16 days to respond to this NOID. If the officer changes his or her mind you will be granted asylum. If the officer does not change his or her mind, your application will be denied and you will remain in your lawful status until it ends.