The violence that racked Central America in the 1980s brought hundreds of thousands of people to the United States. Many of them sought protection under the U.S. law of political asylum, and others are eligible to apply for it.
Today, despite growing pressure from some sectors to limit the entry of refugees, the United States continues to offer protection to people from around the world fleeing persecution.
The law of political asylum arises from commitments made by the United States when it signed certain international treaties, and from the general requirements of international law. The asylum law says that the United States will not deport anyone who has a "well-founded fear" of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a specific social group. It is not necessary for people actually to have been mistreated by the authorities in their country. Rather, the test is whether there is a "reasonable possibility" that an applicant might be mistreated by the authorities in the future.
For example, in some Latin American countries, people who speak out against the government run the risk of being arrested and imprisoned, and in some cases tortured or killed. (Sometimes governments seek to harm people who they believe have a certain political opinion, even if they really do not). This is persecution based on political opinion.
Other people are in danger because of their work with independent labor unions. This creates a possibility of persecution based on membership in a specific social group. Still others are mistreated because they belong to an indigenous group. This is persecution based on race, and in some cases on religion and nationality. These are only a few of the many situations that can be the foundation of a valid asylum claim.
Anyone who fears returning to his or her country for these or similar reasons has the right to apply for political asylum in the United States. People who are living in the United States, even if they are undocumented, can submit an application for political asylum to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. People who have been arrested by the INS, or who are detained in INS prisons, have the right to apply with an immigration judge.
(There are many legal scholars who think it is unjust to imprison asylum seekers, but this continues to occur frequently. However, people who apply for asylum by mail before being arrested are not detained.)
It is important that the application form be filled out carefully and in detail. It is always advisable to seek the assistance of an attorney in preparing the asylum application. Because many refugees flee their countries in haste, the INS does not expect that documentary proof will be submitted with the asylum application, although this can be of help.
There is no charge to apply for asylum. In most cases, the INS must provide work authorization within 90 days of the filing of the application to allow the applicants to legally obtain employment in this country.
Anywhere from six weeks to two years or more after the filing of the asylum application with the INS, applicants will be called in for an interview, to which they can take an attorney and an interpreter, if they wish. Asylum seekers whose applications are approved may remain in the United States with work authorization and, after one year, are eligible to apply for permanent residency.
When an application is denied, the individual in most cases can apply again in deportation proceedings before an immigration judge. Even if the judge denies the application, there are other levels of appeal. The person may eventually be deported, if all appeals fail.
Throughout the 1980s, the INS unfairly denied thousands of asylum applications, especially from Salvadorans and Guatemalans. Finally, in 1990, thanks to a number of federal lawsuits and to new federal regulations, the political asylum process was made much fairer.
However, with growing sentiment to "put up a wall" at U.S. borders, the right of political asylum will be in danger in this country in the years to come.