How to Prepare an Affirmative Asylum Application

Details of how to prepare and submit Form I-589 and supporting documents in order to apply for asylum in the United States (so long as you are not in removal proceedings).

By , Associate Professor Creighton University School of Law
Updated 10/07/2023

If you are physically present in the U.S. and not detained or in removal proceedings, and you are interested in applying for asylum (per 8 U.S.C. § 1158) because you are afraid to return to your country of origin owing to persecution you fear or experienced there, then here's an overview of the application procedure:

  • Prepare a Form I-589, "Application for Asylum and Withholding of Removal" to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
  • Prepare and include supporting documentation of your fear of persecution, including your own personal declaration.
  • Submit all these to USCIS within the one-year deadline (unless you qualify for an exception).
  • Await your personal interview (a potentially long wait), and
  • Attend an interview at an Asylum Office.

We'll discuss all these steps in this article.

Where to Obtain USCIS Form I-589

You can download the asylum application form for free from the I-589 page of the USCIS website. In fact, Form I-589 is the only form you'll need to file to apply for all of the following forms of relief, and it's possible you'll want to apply for more than one, so that you have back-up options:

  • asylum
  • withholding of removal, and
  • protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT).

If you hire an attorney to handle your case, the attorney will prepare the I-589 form for you, using information you provide.

How to Fill Out the Asylum Application (Form I-589)

Before you fill out Form I-589, carefully read the USCIS instructions provided for it. Note that if you fail to answer even one question, USCIS can send the entire application back to you to revise and resubmit. So, if no answer exists, or a question does not apply to you, simply type "N/A" ("not applicable") in the answer space for that question. It's best not to leave any spaces blank unless they're clearly optional.

When answering questions on Form I-589, be sure to provide sufficient information about your race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, tribal and clan membership, or political affiliations, especially if you are applying for asylum due to having been hurt or threatened because of one of those factors.

Be careful to list all of your biological and adoptive children. Include children even if you are not (or were never) married to their parent. Also include your children even if they are married or if they are 21 years old or older. (Although married children and children who are 21 years old or older do not receive asylum automatically when your application is approved, you may file for their legal status once you become a permanent resident or citizen. Failure to mention them now could create trouble for those later petitions.) Also see When, How to Include Family Member Dependents on Your Asylum Application.

If you cannot remember specific dates requested on the Form I-589, try to include the month and the year if you can remember them accurately. If you are estimating a date, state so by noting that the date is an estimate ("est.") or approximate ("approx."). Do not try to guess specific dates if you cannot remember them.

The information you set forth in your asylum application will be confidential. Only the U.S. government will have access to it. It is important that you fill out your asylum application completely and truthfully. Include information that you actually remember, and if you are not sure about some details, state so.

For further detail, see Filling Out Form I-589 Application for Asylum. Don't forget to make a copy of the form when you're done, for your own records.

Describing Why You Are Seeking Asylum in Form I-589 Part B

In Part B of the I-589, you will need to address the important question of why you are seeking asylum. You should include information about what happened to you and your family in the past which has made you afraid to return, why you (or your family) were harmed, and what you believe would happen to you if you had to return to your home country.

You should describe specific incidents and dates, and include as much detail as you can remember. Do not simply write general statements. Again, if you cannot remember an exact date, state that you are estimating it.

It is a good idea to attach a written declaration to your application (described below and in How to Write an Asylum Declaration to Go With Your I-589 Application). That way, you can give short answers to the questions in Part B, and say "See also attached declaration."

How to Prepare a Declaration to Accompany Form I-589

Your written statement (declaration) should explain in detail why you left your home country and why you are afraid to return there. You are not required to include it with your asylum application, but it will help the asylum officer better understand why you are applying for asylum.

Such declarations often go on for several pages. You will want to include the following information:

  • Your name; birth date and birth place; citizenship; ethnicity; tribal or clan affiliation.
  • Your parents' names and address; number of siblings and their location.
  • Your spouse's name and location; date and place of marriage; number of children.
  • Your background, schooling, and employment history.
  • Any political or religious involvement that you had.
  • A detailed explanation of everything that has happened that makes you afraid to return to your country. Make sure to include specific dates, places, names, and witnesses. Explain how exactly you were harmed or threatened, and reasons for why you were targeted.
  • A detailed explanation of harm or threats that your family or friends suffered in your home country. Again, include dates, places, names, witnesses, and how and why they were harmed or threatened.
  • What you think will happen to you if you have to go back to your home country, and why.
  • Why you cannot move to a different part of your home country to be safe.

At the end of your declaration, write: "I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United States that the foregoing is true and correct." Then sign the declaration and date it.

This is also something an attorney can help you draft, if you hire one.

Including Independent Information About Conditions in the Country Where You Fear Persecution

Asylum officers find background information about the human rights situation in your country, and about any specific events that you were involved in, very useful. It helps establish that your story is consistent with what independent sources have said is occurring in your country.

You may submit copies of articles from newspapers, books, or human rights reports that help to explain the situation in your country and what had happened to you. Information about country conditions can be found, for example, from:

When an attorney prepares an asylum case, it's common for them to include a stack of documentation up to an inch high. After all, few applicants have any personal proof of what happened to them. Thus official, authoritative accounts showing that what you're describing fits a general pattern can be crucial to showing your credibility.

What to Include in Your Complete Asylum Application

Before submitting your application to USCIS, make sure you have included everything required. In addition to filing Form I-589, you must include:

  • a copy of any passport that you have and of any U.S. immigration documents (such as your I-94 Arrival/Departure Record), and
  • a copy of other identification documents that you have, such as your birth certificate, national identity card, or driver's license.

There is currently (as of 2024) no fee to file Form I-589.

Do NOT submit originals of your immigration or identity documents. USCIS will probably never return them. Instead, bring all original documents to your asylum interview, where the asylum officer can examine them in person.

If you can, you should also include the following materials with your asylum application:

  • your personal declaration
  • declarations from friends or family who witnessed how you were harmed or threatened in your home country
  • an expert declaration from a medical expert who has examined you for evidence of physical abuse you suffered in your country
  • an expert declaration from a psychologist or psychiatrist who has examined you for evidence of emotional problems you are suffering as a result of harm you suffered in your country
  • an expert declaration from a human rights activist or an academic who is familiar with human rights abuses in your country
  • copies of country-conditions reports and news clippings explaining human rights abuses in your country and what happened to you
  • other materials that confirm what had happened to you in your home country, including photographs that show how you were harmed, threatening letters, newspaper articles describing how you were harmed, official government documents, and so forth.
  • a cover letter, listing what's in the application and mentioning any special requests; for example, a female asylum officer if you'll be discussing sensitive topics that you wouldn't feel comfortable having a male officer hear.

Make a copy of everything for your records.

How to Submit Documents in a Language Other than English to Support Your Asylum Claim

Make sure that each document you're submitting to USCIS that is not in English includes:

  • a complete translation into English, and
  • a certificate of translation, which states that the translator is fluent in both English and the original language of the translated document, and that they translated the document into English to the best of their ability.

See Sample Format for Translating Non-English Documents for Immigration Applications.

Applying for Asylum for Family Members

If you are also filing for asylum for your spouse and children (unmarried and under the age of 21) who are present in the U.S., you will need to provide a copy of the marriage and birth certificates showing your family relationship. If they're not in English, also provide a translation

One-Year Deadline for Filing Form I-589

There is a time limitation: USCIS must receive your application within one year of your last entry into the United States. This can be tough to prove if you entered without inspection, for example by crossing the border illegally, but do your best to supply evidence such as credit card receipts from locations outside and then inside the United States.

Or, if you have maintained lawful immigration status in the U.S. (for example, you had a valid visa) during your entire stay here and up to the time when you file your asylum application, you can submit your asylum application at any time, even if more than a year has passed since you last entered the United States.

There's also an exception for unaccompanied children (under age 18) If they have no parent or legal guardian in the United States, they have until they turn 18 to submit their application for asylum to USCIS. (See (See I.N.A. § 208(a)(2)(E) and 6 U.S. Code § 279(g).)

If you've missed the filing deadline, see Can I Still Apply for Asylum After the One-Year Filing Deadline? and possibly consult an attorney: Rare exceptions are made for changed conditions or where "extraordinary circumstances" led to the delay in filing.

Also realize that if you entered the U.S. unlawfully or overstayed a visa, you are at risk of arrest by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, until you have submitted your asylum application. But if you get arrested, it's not the end of the world. You can also submit an asylum application in deportation proceedings.

Where to File Your Asylum Application

The USCIS office (most likely either what's called a "lockbox" or a "vetting center) to which you will need to mail your asylum application depends on your state of residence and other factors about your case. Consult the "Where to File" and "Special Instructions" sections at the link above for the correct location.

Online filing of an I-589 has also become an option for most (but not all) applicants. You will need to create a MyUSCIS account, then choose "File a form online" and, in the dropdown menu, select "I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal." Follow the instructions from there.

What Happens After Filing an Asylum Application

After USCIS receives your application, it will send you a receipt. USCIS will later send you a letter notifying you of the place, date, and time for your biometrics appointment (fingerprinting). Finally, you will receive a letter notifying you of the time and place of your asylum interview. USCIS has numerous asylum offices around the United States.

While your asylum application is pending, you will be permitted to remain in the United States. If you need to travel outside the U.S. while your application is pending, you must first obtain advance parole (which you can apply for using Form I-131). It is not recommended that you visit your home country, however, because USCIS will assume that you do not fear returning there and therefore do not need asylum in the United States.

If you change your address, make sure to inform USCIS within ten days of moving, either by sending in Form AR-11 or directly on the USCIS website.

There is a risk that the central USCIS office will not advise the asylum office of your change of address. Therefore, while your asylum case is pending, you should ALSO send Form AR-11 to the USCIS office to which you had submitted your asylum application.

Planning for the Potentially Long Wait for an Asylum Interview

For years, USCIS processed asylum applications the way one might expect, reviewing them and interviewing applicants on a first-come-first-served basis. However, because of the high volume of asylum applications, the wait times for interviews became incredibly long—several years at some asylum offices. To deal with that, USCIS began scheduling asylum interviews "starting with newer filings and working back towards older filings," in a policy referred to as "last in, first out."

According to USCIS, this policy change was made to deter frivolous asylum claims from people filing mainly in order to obtain an employment authorization document (work permit), which they are eligible for while their case was pending. If you have recently applied for asylum or plan on filing for asylum, this policy could affect your case in case in a number of ways.

Fast Pace of Interviews Means Filing Bare-Bones Applications is No Longer Wise for Out-of-Status Applicants

Under the previous "first in, first out" policy, an applicant could file a basic, "bare-bones" asylum application (Form I-589) and then gather all the relevant evidence and supporting documents while waiting the months or years for their interview. This also made sense because applicants are not (in most cases) eligible to apply for employment authorization (an EAD or work permit) until their application has been pending for several months, so that filing the basic application as soon as possible made the applicant eligible for a work permit sooner.

Under the "last in, first out" policy, however, it often makes sense to delay filing for asylum for as long as possible, in order to have time to gather evidence related to the claim. All evidence must be received by the asylum office prior to the scheduled interview (in most offices, at least one week before, and sometimes more).

Consider your immigration status in figuring out how long you can wait before submitting, however. People who do not have lawful immigration status must apply for asylum within one year of their most recent entry into the United States (unless they meet an exception to this deadline). Furthermore, someone who's been in the United States for less than a year but whose status will soon expire (for example, a B-2 tourist visa) might not want to delay filing for long. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can be aggressive in detaining foreign nationals who have overstayed visas.

Also, after the asylum interview is held, people who are out of status must be prepared to be referred to an immigration court for removal (deportation) proceedings relatively quickly if their case is not approved by the asylum officer. This could go well if the immigration judge approves asylum after all, but is also risky, because it could instead result in an order of removal (deportation) .

If Currently in Valid Immigration Status, Consider the Expiration Date of That Status

For intending asylum applicants who are currently in a legal immigration status (for example, with a temporary employment or student visa) the one-year filing deadline will not strictly apply. USCIS normally considers the situation to be an "extraordinary circumstance" warranting an exception to the one-year deadline. Still, these applicants must make sure to apply within a reasonable time after falling out of status, or no longer be eligible for asylum.

Another issue is that, under the "last in, first out" policy, applicants with significant time left on their visas will likely still be in status when their claim is adjudicated. Thus if it is not approved, the denial will be final and it will not be referred to an immigration judge. To apply a second time, the applicant will have to claim a change in circumstances relevant to the asylum claim once out of status.

Be Ready to Request a Rescheduled Interview If You Need It

Because of the tight timelines the last in, first out policy creates, you might need to ask that USCIS reschedule your asylum interview to a later date. The asylum office will generally accommodate one reschedule request. Be aware, however, that your interview will likely be scheduled for several weeks after you make this request.

Getting Legal Help

A good attorney can help you highlight the most compelling portions of your asylum claim, overcome any negative information, prepare the paperwork and supporting documents, help you prepare to testify, and appear with you, either at the Asylum Office or in Immigration Court.

Fortunately, asylum is an area where you'll find a lot of help from volunteer attorneys or nonprofit (charitable) organizations serving immigrants and refugees.

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