When finishing up your Form I-589 to apply for asylum in the U.S., you might notice a warning on the form, saying that applicants who "knowingly made a frivolous application for asylum will be permanently ineligible for any benefits under the Immigration and Nationality Act."
What does this mean? Should you be worried about this if you file an asylum case that, legally speaking, doesn't have a strong chance of being granted? Might your case then be not only denied, but found "frivolous;" thus ruining your chances of applying for other U.S. immigration benefits. If, for instance, you were to marry a U.S. citizen or become eligible for a green card (lawful permanent residence) on some other basis, you certainly wouldn't want your chances ruined by having a frivolous asylum application on your immigration record.
To qualify as "knowingly frivolous," the law says that one or more material (important and relevant) elements of the asylum application and testimony would have to constitute deliberate fabrications, otherwise known as lies or falsehoods. (This comes from the regulations published by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at 8 C.F.R. § 1208.20.)
The penalty for frivolous applications no doubt reflects the fact that the asylum system has a history of abuse by people who turned in applications with made-up stories, in some cases written by someone else, in hopes of gaining status in the United States.
It is not meant to deter or frighten away people who truly fear returning to their home country. So if your case is simply weak; for example, various threats against you were never carried out in even the smallest way, or you're depending on an area of asylum law that courts have trouble agreeing on (such as whether domestic violence survivors can claim asylum), you should not fear a frivolous finding.
A finding that your asylum application is frivolous would not be made by the first officials to hear your case, namely the USCIS asylum officers. Only if these officers deny your case and refer it to the Immigration Court is a frivolous finding possible, made by the Immigration Judge (IJ) who hears your testimony.
What's more, the IJ is supposed to give you a chance to explain yourself if you are caught in any apparent lies. The regulations state that the IJ or appeals board can find that the claim is frivolous only if satisfied that "the applicant, during the course of the proceedings, has had sufficient opportunity to account for any discrepancies or implausible aspects of the claim."
If you think your case might not impress the asylum examiners sufficiently to grant it, that's a good reason to hire an attorney or at least pay special attention to supplying persuasive documents in support of your case. Evidence of conditions in your home country will be very important. The more documentation you can present from experts showing that other family members of politically active persons, in situations similar to yours, legitimately feared persecution, the stronger your case will appear.
For more information about asylum, see the Asylum & Refugee Status page of Nolo's website.