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Political Asylum & Refugee Status

Los Angeles Immigration Attorney David M. Sturman

Political asylum is granted by the U.S. government to people who can prove that they are afraid to return to their home country because they have a “well-founded fear of persecution,” because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.  A well-founded fear of persecution can be proven by evidence and/or testimony from the applicant and/or witnesses that establishes a credible fear of some restriction on the applicant’s liberty or well-being because of one of the five reasons just mentioned.  Evidence of past persecution, threats of harm, unlawful arrest, or restrictions on freedom can be used to establish the required well-founded fear of persecution

You must establish that you truly believe you are in danger, that you have good reasons for this belief, and that someone else in your position would also be afraid. You must generally present independent, verifiable testimony and/or documentary evidence that shows you fear persecution in your home country or that you have been persecuted in the past. Persecution can mean that you have been, or may be, hurt, kidnapped, detained, jailed, tortured, threatened, killed, or beaten, or that your freedom was or will be taken away in any other way.

The people who persecuted you or who you fear will persecute you if you return to your home country can be the government (army, police, soldiers, elected officials, death squads, or others), anti-government guerrillas, a government opposition group, the civil patrol, or any other group, public or private that the government cannot or will not control. The people who persecuted you or who you fear will persecute you if you return to your home country must be persecuting you based on one of the following five reasons:

  1. Political opinion. It doesn’t matter whether you support or oppose the government. People who have been persecuted because of their political opinions and have won their asylum cases have included: those who demonstrated as students, were active in labor unions,  were members of political parties or were members of the government. Sometimes, even if you don’t have a political opinion, the persecutor may think you have a certain political opinion, called an imputed opinion. He may persecute you because he thinks you have a political opinion due to things you do, groups you belong to, or your family’s background.
  2. Religion. If you are not allowed to freely practice your religion or you are persecuted because of your religious beliefs, you may be able to qualify for asylum. Many times people who are religious workers, catechists, members of Christian Base communities, Jews, and other minority religion members may qualify for asylum.
  3. Particular Social Group. This means people who share certain characteristics such as: age, place where they live, family, ethnic group, race, nationality, gender or community. This could be persons who oppose gangs in El Salvador, persons who exposed government corruption, or gays, lesbians or transgender persons.
  4. Race. This means that if you have been or may be persecuted because of your skin color, origin or background you may qualify for asylum.
  5. Nationality. Nationality is similar to race. It can mean your country of citizenship, country of origin or your ethnic group. Many countries today are comprised of citizens of differing nationalities and because of this one nationality may persecute another. This has occurred in Sri Lanka with Tamils, in Iraq with Kurds and in many African nations.
  6. Recently, the immigration and federal courts have also created a new ground for persecution based on sex and the treatment of women in foreign countries, and this ground may include the practice of female genital mutilation in the asylum applicant’s home country.

If the persons who are persecuting you are doing so for personal reasons only, you will not be granted political asylum. However, if you have a well-founded belief that the persecutor(s) are persecuting you are doing so for one of the five reasons cited above, then you may be able to obtain political asylum in the United States. For example, if a soldier who is off-duty threatened to kill you because he thought you had stolen money from him, that would not qualify as a well-founded fear of persecution for purposes of political asylum because the threat relates to something personal, not because of a characteristic such as race, religion or political opinion. But if this same soldier then told his commander that you were a guerrilla or an anti-government activist, the danger may no longer be just personal; it would also be political.

Although not necessarily a requirement, the closer the persecution came to you, the stronger your case will be. For example, you would have a better case if you yourself were threatened or persecuted than if a fellow-student or someone else in your town or family were threatened or captured. However, if you can prove that what happened to another person shows that you are also in danger, you still may qualify for political asylum.

Your testimony alone, if believable and detailed can be enough to prove your case. You do not need documents although documents and independently verifiable evidence are always helpful to show that your claims are true. You may include newspaper articles, books, government publications, U.S. government surveys and publications and other evidence about conditions in your country, about you, or about persons who suffered the same threats as you. Article showing the problems in your home country, such as reports from the U.S. Department of State or Amnesty International are often helpful.

The asylum interview is an important event that carries with it meaningful consequences.  If the asylum officer is convinced at the interview that the applicant is credible and is telling the truth and does have a fear of persecution in his home country, the application may be granted. However, conversely should the applicant fail to prove a credible fear of persecution, the application may be denied and can result in the prompt commencement of removal or deportation proceedings to force the applicant to leave the U.S.  An asylum application is a very serious and meaningful request and should not be taken lightly due to the risk of deportation for a failed application.

If an application for political asylum is granted by the USCIS, it can lead to permanent residence.  However, before filing be sure that you have sufficient grounds to establish a well-founded fear of persecution as a denied application can lead to the institution of deportation proceedings. Besides the initial application and supporting documents and affidavits, applicants are provided a further opportunity to establish their eligibility at a very thorough interview scheduled by the USCIS.  These interviews often take hours to complete and applicants should use this opportunity to explain to the immigration officer the basis for the application and to present any additional evidence.  The interviewing officer is usually a specially trained examiner who has undergone hours of education and training in adjudicating asylum applications and accordingly is normally very versed in the asylum application process and knowledgeable of general country conditions in many countries.  During this interview the applicant may be represented by the attorney of his choice to facilitate the interview and the introduction of evidence and to ensure that the interview is fair and complete.

Besides proving a well-founded fear of persecution based upon one of the five enumerated grounds, the applicant must also establish that he has not firmly resettled in a third country before coming to the U.S.  This means that after fleeing or departing the persecuting country, the applicant must not have established roots or been granted asylum or residence in another country.  The USCIS will not grant an applicant political asylum if he has already escaped persecution and resettled in another country before venturing to the U.S.

Also, the asylum applicant must not be a persecutor himself, have engaged in terrorism or have been convicted of a serious crime called an aggravated felony.  Aggravated felonies are crimes such as robbery, burglary, murder or many drug offenses. Anyone who applies for political asylum and has persecuted someone else because of that person’s political opinion, her membership in a social group, her religion, her race or her nationality may not be granted political asylum, no matter how strong the case may be. For example, if a member of the army or a guerrilla group participated in the kidnapping, torture or murder of someone else whom he suspected of opposing his group politically, this could mean he was persecuting another because of political beliefs and he will probably lose his political asylum case.

In short, applying for political asylum in the U.S. is often times a very challenging and difficult task.  Before applying for asylum it is a good idea to get the advice of a knowledgeable immigration attorney. Never file asylum just to get a work permit or because you have no other relief available to you.  Frivolous or false applications are quickly denied and can result in your deportation from the U.S. and a bar to other applications.  At the Law Office of David M. Sturman, we gladly review and prescreen political asylum claims before you file to assess your eligibility all without charge as part of our free initial consultation that we offer to all clients.

For more information or a free consultation contact us at or phone 818 714-2226.