When, How to Include Family Member Dependents on Your Asylum Application

What happens to family dependents when the U.S. grants asylum to the principal applicant, and what other options your spouse and children might have for joining you in the United States.

By , Attorney (American University Washington College of Law)

If you are physically within the United States and have suffered or fear persecution on account of your race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, you are entitled to file a claim for asylum. (See 8 U.S.C. §1158.) Like many who fled their country, you might have brought family members with you. In some cases, they might have their own possible claims for asylum—in other cases, not.

This article will discuss:

  • ways for family dependents to win asylum in the United States
  • what happens to family dependents when the U.S. grants asylum to the principal applicant, and
  • what other options your dependents might have for joining you in the United States.

Which Family Members Can Be Dependents on a U.S. Asylum Application?

The main asylum applicant's spouse (husband or wife) and unmarried children under the age of 21 are considered "dependents." As long as your dependents are physically in the United States, you can ask that they be included on your application for asylum.

You will need to name each of your dependents on the asylum application in any case, but by checking "yes" in the appropriate box—in Part A.II, Question 24 in the section for spouses, and Question 21 in the lower section for children (referring to the version of Form I-589 issued on 03/01/2023)—they will share in your asylum grant or denial.

Dependents do not have to have suffered persecution or fear persecution to be included in an asylum application. Only the main applicant needs to prove that. Dependents can be citizens of any country other than the United States.

If you win asylum, all eligible dependents who are included in the asylum application at the time the decision is made will be granted asylum as well—so long as they aren't barred from basic eligibility. The asylum officer or immigration judge will look at the bars to asylum, including whether the dependent has already been in the U.S. for more than one year.

Timing of When to Add a Family Dependent to an Asylum Application

You can include family dependents on your U.S. asylum application up to the time a decision is made on your case. If you are planning on including dependents who are in the United States when you file your I-589 application for asylum, it might be a good idea to include them on the application at that time—though including them also creates certain risks, as described below.

Like you, your dependents will be fingerprinted (at a biometrics appointment), and the immigration judge or asylum officer will have all the information about them before the interview.

Dependents who arrive in the United States after you filed the asylum application can still be included in your application. To do so, you'll need to tell the interviewing officer or presiding judge that you want to include your spouse or children, and the officer or judge can add them to your application. An asylum officer will add a dependent to the asylum application as long as the dependent is not in court proceedings.

When Dependents Can and Should Submit Their Own I-589 Asylum Application

Even if they are dependents on your application, your spouse and unmarried children under 21 can choose to file their own applications for asylum.

This is something to consider if your dependents have themselves experienced or fear persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Some people see this as getting "two bites at the apple," since every asylum applicant will be interviewed separately. If one applicant is granted asylum, that person's dependents (those who are not barred from asylum) will be granted as well.

On the other hand, if you decide after applying that you do not want your dependents to be included in your asylum application, you can ask the officer or judge to remove them from the form. You might consider this if, after including your dependents, you become unsure about the strength of your own claim, particularly if circumstances have changed in your country or your life since you originally filed the form. (This would be a good time to talk with an attorney.)

Every applicant who files an asylum application will be offered an interview with the USCIS Asylum Office, whether or not they are also dependents on another application. The asylum office or immigration court will attempt to hear related cases at the same time, but that might not be possible. Officers and judges will review all files before making any decisions and will not make their decision until every principal asylum applicant has been interviewed.

What Happens to Family Dependents in the Asylum Application Process

Every dependent must appear at the principal applicant's asylum interview or court hearing. The officer or judge will require that all dependents show identification or otherwise verify their identities and relationship to the principal applicant.

If USCIS grants asylum to the principal applicant, all eligible dependents will be granted asylum as well. Applicants who are not granted asylum will (if they're not in lawful immigration status) be referred to immigration court for a hearing in front of an Immigration Judge, along with all undocumented dependents.

Asylum applicants who are not granted asylum and who are in lawful immigration status—that is, have a right to be in the United States, such as an unexpired I-94 based on a visa entry—will receive a Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID). Dependents who are "in status" (in the U.S. with permission) will be listed on that notice as well.

Getting Legal Help

Deciding whether to add dependents on your asylum application and whether to file claims both as a principal and a dependent is a strategic choice. It is a good idea to consult with an experienced immigration attorney to help you make this decision.

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