The greatest benefit of an approved asylum application is, of course, the right to stay, live, and work in the United States. Other benefits come after approval and during the application process. But requesting asylum also brings up some serious risks. We'll discuss both here.
But first, some background regarding key terms: "Affirmative" asylum means you are already in the United States, and you choose to apply with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's (USCIS's) asylum office. By contrast, "defensive" asylum means that U.S. officials have encountered you either at the border or in the U.S interior, and you are asking an immigration judge for asylum.
Once an asylum application (Form I-589, with supporting documents) is submitted to USCIS or the immigration court, this allows you to remain in the United States while awaiting a final decision. The application could be pending for a short time, or it could be pending for several years.
A pending application does not give you lawful or permanent U.S. immigration status in the same way that a green card or citizenship would, however. But there's a side benefit: A pending and non-frivolous asylum application prevents you from collecting "unlawful presence" in the United States (as long as you do not violate other immigration rules, for example, by working without permission). That could help you avoid problems if you later become eligible for a U.S. green card on some basis other than asylum or if you leave and later want to return to the United States.
If you have not received an approval or a denial in your case by the time 150 days has passed, and there are no ongoing delays you caused, and you are otherwise eligible, you can apply for work authorization. This will authorize you to work in almost any capacity in the United States. The exception is that some government or high-security jobs require you to be a U.S. citizen or have permanent resident status.
It could happen that your asylum application is approved before 150 days have passed, in which case you will not even need this option. But it's entirely possible that the asylum office or immigration judge will not make a decision on your case by this time. That's especially true because if you cause a delay (like requesting a rescheduled appointment for fingerprints or an interview) and that delay is ongoing at the time 150 days arrives, you will not be eligible to apply for a work permit at that time. So, be careful when considering a request to reschedule a USCIS appointment or immigration court hearing.
Your work permit will come in the form of an "employment authorization document" (EAD) sent by mail. There might be delays of a week or two in receiving the EAD after it is officially approved. Asylum-based EADs are currently approved for a two-year period.
You can renew your EAD as many times as you'd like while your asylum case is still in process, so long as you remain eligible. Check the I-765 instructions before submitting your application to make sure you have included the appropriate fees.
When you apply for an EAD, you can also apply for a Social Security Number (SSN) on the same form, the I-765. Alternatively, after the EAD is approved, you can go to an office of the Social Security Administration to apply for an SSN. You will receive a card that says you can work "with DHS authorization." The EAD proves this authorization from DHS, the Department of Homeland Security.
Your SSN will be helpful for reasons beyond working. With an SSN (and an EAD), most states will allow you apply for a driver's license or a state identification card. An SSN will also allow companies to run background and credit checks on you. This will make it easier for you to open a bank account, get a credit card, get a contract for a cell phone, and many other things.
At the end of the asylum process, an asylum officer or judge might grant you (and your dependent family members) the status of "asylee". An asylee can work and live in the United States indefinitely. See Granted Asylum in the U.S.: When You'll Get Your Asylum Documents.
Your status as an asylee could last well into the future, although U.S. officials reserve the right to terminate it if you no longer fear returning to your home country (for example, if conditions in your country improve). In practice, U.S. officials do not often do this. One year after your asylum is approved, you can apply for permanent residence in the United States (a green card).
If your asylum application is approved, you also qualify for a range of benefits from state and local governments. First, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) offers services to new asylees, including with housing, employment, and more. Be sure to act quickly; some of these programs are available for only a short time after asylum is approved.
In addition, asylees may qualify for a range of state and federal government programs normally open only to U.S. citizens or long-time permanent residents, such as SNAP benefits ("food stamps"), Medicaid, or subsidies for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare").
These programs all have different tests for eligibility, time limits, and so forth. An ORR office or a state benefits office should be able to provide more information about which programs are available in your state and how to apply.
If your case is not approved at the USCIS asylum office, it will probably be referred to the immigration court for removal ("deportation") proceedings.
If you have some other valid status in the United States, such as a student or visitor visa, the asylum office will not refer your case to the immigration court. Instead, the asylum office will deny your asylum application and allow you to keep your current immigration status.
A "referral" is not yet a denial, but it means that the asylum office was not convinced for some reason. In removal proceedings, you will have the chance to renew your asylum application and testify in immigration court before a judge. The court should receive a copy of your application (I-589 and supporting documents) from the asylum office, so you should not need to file it again.
At the end of the proceedings, the immigration judge can grant your asylum application or can order your removal from the United States.
An order of removal will usually prevent someone from legally returning to the United States for five (or more) years into the future. Even then, it could be difficult to get a visa to return to the United States, because U.S. immigration officials might believe that you will not return to your home country after your visit.
And of course, the risk of being removed to the country from which you fled is very real.
If your U.S. asylum application is not approved, you probably will not be able to successfully apply for asylum in any other country. However, if something about your background or your country changes, you might be able to apply for asylum again in the U.S. or in another country.
In addition, through your asylum application, U.S. immigration authorities will know where you and your family live and have your fingerprints on file. The asylum application form asks about your spouse, children, parents, and siblings, including where they are living now. In addition, your supporting documents or questions during the asylum interview could reveal more details about these family members or details about other family members or friends. However, U.S. immigration officials do not currently use this information to target individuals who are in the U.S. without lawful status. While there is a small risk, it is important to be truthful on your asylum application.
During asylum interviews, U.S. immigration officials usually advise asylum seekers that information from the asylum process will not be shared with other governments. This is reassuring if you worry that your government might retaliate against you. But if you have to appeal your case to a federal court, your name will possible eventually be revealed.
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."
To qualify as "knowingly frivolous," U.S. immigration rules say 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 government regulations at 8 C.F.R. § 1208.20.) In plain English, your asylum application will be considered frivolous if you lie or make up a fact that is important in your case.
The consequences of filing a frivolous application are severe: a lifetime bar to any immigration benefits. U.S. immigration authorities use several tools to uncover frivolous or fraudulent applications. The penalty no doubt reflects the fact that the U.S. 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.
This bar is not, however, meant to deter or frighten away people who truly fear returning to their home country. So if your asylum 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.
If you think your case might not impress the asylum examiners sufficiently to grant it, that's a good reason to hire an immigration 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 section of Nolo's website.