Grants of Asylum Are on the Way Up in the United States

I have always been interested in why people move from one country to another and why they do so. I learned early on that a good number of people are forced to flee their own country because they have been subject to some sort of persecution. Many of these people seek asylum in the United States. As a result of this interest, I have spent a good part of my professional life working for the U.S. State Department; later working as a lawyer representing refugees; and now as a law professor who teaches about immigration law and its subset, refugee law. I always try to keep up with the statistics on asylum for my refugee law students. In this article I wish to share some of these statistics with a wider world.

Eligibility for Asylum

The legal remedy of asylum is available to noncitizens legally in the U. S. and to undocumented noncitizens seeking protection from persecution they faced or would face in their home country on account of one of the several specific protected grounds. Thus, not all immigrants are protected from persecution. Rather, the persecution must have a connection to the specific protected characteristics of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. A grant of asylum will allow the applicant, after a one year stay in the United States, to adjust their status to that of a legal permanent resident. The burden of proof for asylum is a showing of a well-founded fear of persecution by an applicant.

There are only two types of applications for asylum which are termed either “affirmative” application or “defensive” applications. Asylum applicants that are not currently under immigration deportation proceedings but have a fear of persecution if they return to their homeland may file an “affirmative” application by mailing a Form I-589 to a regional United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) service center under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A specialized corps of full time professional asylum officers receive the applications and interview the applicants. Asylum officers grant asylum in meritorious cases, which initially ran between 15 and 30 percent, but in recent years have exceeded 40 percent. They do not deny the other cases; instead, asylum officers refer them to the immigration court placing the cases in removal (deportation) proceedings.

Once in removal proceedings those applicants who did not receive a grant of asylum with respect to their “affirmative” application may then renew their application for asylum by renewing their request for asylum as a “defensive” application. The “affirmative” I-589 application becomes a part of the immigration court record. For those individuals placed in removal proceedings and who never filed an “affirmative” application and who believe they may have a claim for asylum will be allowed to submit an application form I-589 as a “defensive” application for relief.

Recent Statistics on Grants of Asylum

The Department of Homeland Security discloses information about the numbers of asylum grants and denials but it does not disclose much information about the characteristics of asylum seekers. Currently, the number of asylum seekers in immigration court is increasing slightly and more are being granted asylum. In recent years, approximately 40 percent of those seeking asylum through an affirmative filing are granted asylum. Similarly, 50 percent of those who pursue their claim for asylum defensively receive grants of asylum.

The total number of persons who were granted asylum in the United States decreased from 22,832 in 2008, to 22,090 in 2009 and in 2010 the number of grants decreased again to 21,113. The number of persons who were granted asylum affirmatively through USCIS decreased from 11,904 in 2009 to 11,244 in 2010. The number of persons granted asylum defensively through an immigration court judge or the Board of Immigration Appeals of the EOIR decreased from 10,186 in 2009 to 9,869 in 2010. The leading countries of origin for persons granted asylum in 2010 were China (32 percent), Ethiopia (5.2 percent), Haiti (3.9 percent), Venezuela (3.1 percent) and Nepal (3 percent). These five countries accounted for 47 percent of the persons granted asylum. In 2010, the top three countries of nationality for affirmative asylees were China (26 percent), Ethiopia (6.1 percent), and Haiti (5.9 percent) accounting for 38 percent of all persons granted asylum affirmatively. The leading countries of nationality of persons granted defensive asylum in immigration courts were China (39 percent), Ethiopia (4.1 percent), India (2.4 percent) Colombia (2.4 percent), and Nepal (2.3 percent). Approximately 50 percent of defensive asylees in 2010 were nationals of these five countries.

In contrast to these 2010 numbers, the total number of persons granted either affirmative or defensive asylum increased from 24,873 in 2011 to 29,484. The number of persons who were granted asylum affirmatively through USCIS increased from 13,369 in 2011 to 17,506 in 2012, a 31 percent increase. The number of Egyptians granted asylum in this manner tripled from 2011 to 2012, no doubt due to the recent unrest in that country. The number of persons granted asylum defensively by an immigration judge or the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) also increased from 11,504 in 2011 to 11,978 in 2012.

In 2012, the leading countries of nationality of persons granted either affirmative or defensive asylum were China (34 percent), Egypt (9.8 percent), Ethiopia (3.8), Venezuela (3.7 percent), and Nepal (3.3 percent). Nationals of these five countries accounted for over half of all person granted asylum. In 2012, the top three countries of nationality for affirmative asylees were China (27 percent), Egypt (15 percent), and Venezuela (5.5 percent). Nationals of these three countries accounted for 48 percent of all persons granted affirmative asylum. The persons granted defensive asylum were China (45 percent), Ethiopia (3.8 percent), and Nepal (3.4 percent). More than one-half of defensive asylees in 2012 were nationals of these three countries.

Demographic data from the DHS 2010 report on asylees only included information concerning affirmative asylees. Seventy- six percent of persons granted asylums affirmatively in 2010 were between the ages 18 and 44. Affirmative asylees were, on average, younger than the native born U.S. population: the median age of persons granted affirmative asylum was 29. While the median age for United States citizens is 37. Fifty-two percent were male and 44 percent were married.

In this same regard, the same statistics for 2012 reveal that 73 percent of persons granted affirmative asylums were still between the ages of 18 to 44. Again, in 2012, affirmative asylees were, on average, still younger than the native-born U.S. population at 29 years old.

So, what does all this mean? Are we making too many grants of asylum to people fleeing persecution in their home country? I say the answer is no. Asylum is a basic and welcome human right. Our rate of grants of asylums should be worn as a badge of pride because it shows that we are a country with an immigration system that provides for humanitarian relief to many fleeing persecution.