Timing of the Affirmative Asylum Application Process

The asylum process can be difficult to track, but knowing the typical government processing times can help you apply or wait for asylum.

By , Attorney Oklahoma City University School of Law
Updated 11/28/2023

If you have filed an affirmative application for asylum (Form I-589) in the United States (meaning one where you are physically in the U.S. but not in removal or deportation proceedings before an immigration judge), exactly when you will be scheduled for an interview at an Asylum Office will depend on when you filed your application. Your wait could be weeks long, or many months long, particularly because the number of people submitting these applications has been hitting record highs in recent years. And then there might be follow-up steps before you receive an actual, final decision.

Here's an overview of how affirmative asylum timing usually works, including

  • government goals for timing of processing asylum applications
  • government realities with regard to when they process asylum applications
  • what notifications you're likely to receive after submitting your application, and by when
  • how long you should expect to wait for a decision following your asylum interview, and
  • how the timing of your case affects your ability to receive a U.S. work permit.

USCIS Deadlines for Affirmative Asylum Application Processing

According to the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) at § 208(d)(5), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is supposed to conduct an applicant's asylum interview within 45 days after receiving the application and make a decision on the asylum application within 180 days after the date the application is filed, unless exceptional circumstances arise. It does not, in a huge number of cases, achieve that goal.

Actual Asylum Interview Wait Times

Large influxes of Central American and South American migrants fleeing violence have led to a surge of new asylum applications and a massive backlog at USCIS. This has prevented the agency from complying with the deadlines set by law.

To address the problem, USCIS has implemented a "last in, first out" policy. This creates a three-tier prioritization system for asylum cases, taking them in the order of:

  1. applications that were scheduled for an interview, but either the applicant or USCIS requested a new interview date
  2. applications that have been pending 21 days or less, and
  3. all other pending affirmative asylum applications in the order they were received, with newest cases scheduled first.

So, depending on when you applied, your asylum application might be placed in a years-long wait queue (if you applied before January 31, 2018), or a very short one (if you applied after January 31, 2018). In some immigration courts, the waits range as long as five years.

Why Aren't Asylum Cases Processed in the Order Received?

Are you curious why USCIS is not handling cases on a first-come, first-served basis? It's mostly because long waits for decisions can qualify applicants for U.S. work permits. The government doesn't want to create an incentive for undocumented people to file frivolous, baseless applications for asylum.

What Do I Do If My Case Is Stuck in the Backlog for an Asylum Interview?

First off, make sure to keep USCIS updated on your address, so that you don't miss an interview notice after moving. Also see What Can I Do While My Asylum Application Is Pending a USCIS Decision?

If an urgent personal situation arises during this time period, you can ask the asylum office to expedite your interview. It pays attention to such situations as having close family members in danger in your country of origin (who are relying on you to petition them to join you as an asylee) or your facing future surgery or hospitalization which would make it difficult to attend an interview. You fill need to gather evidence to support your request, such as documents or letters showing your family's difficult situation at home or a letter from your doctor.

Of course, you will need to balance this urgency against the risk that USCIS will grant a speedy interview but ultimately deny your request for asylum and refer you to immigration court, where a judge might order you deported.

The current method for requesting expedited action on interview scheduling is to make your request in writing to the asylum office handling your case. If you're not sure which one that is, check the USCIS Service and Office Locator page.

Receiving Asylum Interview Scheduling Notices From USCIS

Within 30 days after USCIS receives your complete asylum application, it should send you a receipt notice (confirming that it got your application). In some cases, USCIS takes longer than 30 days to send receipt notices.

At the same time or shortly thereafter, USCIS will send you a biometrics appointment notice. It will require you, any spouse included in your asylum application, and any children included in your asylum application who are older than 14 to appear and have biometric information (fingerprinting, photo, and signature) taken. This is normally completed at a USCIS application support center (ASC), which is likely to be closer to your home location than the asylum office.

Eventually, you will either be scheduled for an interview at one of the various U.S. asylum offices or an asylum officer will travel to your local USCIS office to meet you. Only a minority of U.S. states have an asylum office. The existing ones are located in the following cities: Arlington (VA), Boston, Chicago, Houston, Miami, Newark, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tampa.

Unfortunately, being scheduled literally means you will receive an interview notice with the date and time you are expected to show up; typically two to three weeks in the future. The asylum office doesn't get in touch to find out whether you are available around that time. This can be shocking and inconvenient for people who waited ten years or more for an interview; and underscores the importance of advising the asylum office if you change your address.

Be sure to prepare well in advance, for example by reading How to Prepare for an Asylum Interview and Your Asylum Interview Appointment: A Walk-Through.

CAUTION: Do your best not to miss the interview! The asylum officer will wait 45 days from the missed-interview date before making a decision on your case. If you haven't gotten in touch by then and you are not in valid immigration status, the officer will mail a "referral notice for failure to appear" and a Notice to Appear in immigration court (an NTA). In other words, you will be put in removal proceedings and have to see an immigration judge. If you are in valid immigration status, your asylum application will simply be dismissed, and you'd have to start over. Missing the interview might also prevent you from getting a work permit.

Post-Interview Timing of Asylum Office Decision

After USCIS receives your complete asylum application and has held an interview with you, you will either be asked to return there to pick up the decision of the asylum officer or a decision will be mailed to you. Although you should receive a decision within two to three months, there have been reported wait times of up to a year.

If you are still in valid immigration status (for example, are in the U.S. on a visa, under which your permitted stay has not expired) an asylum officer who does not believe you qualify for asylum will deny your case. If you aren't in valid immigration status, the asylum officer will either grant your asylum application or refer your application to the immigration court.

Timing of Immigration Court Decision on Your Asylum Case

If the asylum officer refers your asylum application to the immigration court, you will be scheduled for a master calendar hearing (your first appearance before an immigration judge). There, the immigration judge might ask you whether you accept an expedited hearing. This will not affect how your case is processed or how likely it will be for you to obtain asylum. Instead, it will shorten all of your court deadlines and could impact your right to a work permit in the short term, as we'll explain.

What Does an Expedited Removal Timeline Mean in an Asylum Case?

Under the expedited removal timeline, the immigration judge will issue a decision on your application within approximately 180 days after your case is referred to the immigration court. If you accept the expedited schedule, the immigration judge will likely schedule the individual merits hearing (at which you will present your case) at least 14 days after your master calendar hearing.

Sometimes the immigration judge or the government attorney will need to reschedule the hearing date or the immigration judge will not offer an expedited removal timeline. Moreover, if you will be presenting a lot of facts and witnesses, the immigration judge might need to schedule several merits hearings. Hence, it is likely that your asylum case will be pending before the immigration court for more than 180 days, even on an expedited removal timeline.

Advantages and Disadvantages of an Expedited Removal Timeline

It is extremely important that you fully prepare for your individual merits hearing, for example by doing country research, preparing additional supporting documents, preparing witnesses, and so on. An expedited hearing date might not give you enough time to do all that.

If you feel that you will need more time to prepare, you can decline or waive your right to the expedited hearing. In that case, your individual merits hearing might be scheduled more than two to three years into the future.

On the other hand, giving yourself that extra time could be a problem if conditions in your home country improve enough that your fear of persecution becomes less credible. What's more, declining an expedited hearing date could be viewed as causing a delay in your asylum application, which could prevent you from qualifying for a work permit.

How Timing of Asylum Application Affects Eligibility for Employment Authorization

If your asylum case has been pending for more than 365 days since you filed your complete asylum application with USCIS, you might be eligible to apply for employment authorization during the wait. You cannot receive authorization to work unless your asylum case has been pending for 365 days or more, you have not caused any delays that are still ongoing at the time of your work permit application, and you are not otherwise ineligible. The U.S. government works hard to make sure this doesn't happen.

So, if you request a continuance (a later asylum interview date than that scheduled by an asylum office or a non-expedited hearing schedule before the immigration judge), and that delay is still ongoing after your application has been pending 365 days, you will not be eligible for a work permit.

If delays are requested or caused by the government or the immigration judge, however, you should remain eligible to receive a work permit after 365 days, so long as none of the other ineligibility criteria apply to you.

How an Immigration Attorney Can Help You Seek Asylum

A good attorney can help you prepare your application, monitor USCIS processing times, request an expedite if needed, help you apply for a work permit if you qualify, and accompany you to the interview. All of this assistance can improve your chances of ultimately obtaining asylum. 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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