Asylum 101 for Educators: Learning & Lesson Plan Resources Included!

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Who is an asylum seeker?

To define asylum seeker, let’s back up and explore two other designations: immigrant and refugee.  Immigrants, by technical definition, are individuals who leave the home country for another country- usually by choice and often in search of education, employment or better life opportunities.  

Refugees are set apart from other immigrants by one critical feature.  The flight of a refugee must be related to war or violence, and they must experience an earnest fear for their life as a result of ongoing persecution.  This comes from the 1951 Geneva Convention, the outcome of which defines a refugee as one who fled his or her own country because of persecution, or a well-founded fear of persecution, based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  

Asylum seekers meet the criteria of a refugee but are already living in the host country or are seeking asylum at a port of entry. The term “port of entry” encompasses all land and sea borders to the United States.  


Where do applicants for asylum to the U.S. originate from?

Individuals and families from all over the world seek safety and asylum in the United States.  The “Big 3” countries for both asylum applications and approvals in the U.S. are China (22%), El Salvador (11%) and Guatemala (10%). (Department of Homeland Security)

However, demographics by state can vary widely.  In Colorado, for instance, the most significant asylee populations include Venezuela, Syria and Russia. (Colorado Refugee Services Program)


How is asylum status granted?

The U.S. has two forms of approved asylum: affirmative and defensive.

Affirmative applicants are those who are already in the U.S. on an approved visa. These individuals may submit a request for asylum within the initial year of entry.  As the first step in the consideration process, the applicant will meet with a USCIS asylum officer to determine whether or not he or she meets the criteria of a refugee.  An application for asylum must be approved, denied or court-reviewed.

Asylum seekers who arrive at a U.S. port of entry without a lawful means of entry are considered defensive applicants. These individuals are apprehended as unauthorized migrants.  Defensive applicants must initiate an asylum request within the first year. If refugee criteria are met and an asylum request is filed, the case is adjudicated in immigration court. (Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2018)

Affirmative applicants who are denied and remain in the U.S. as unauthorized individuals may apply for defensive consideration.

A USCIS issued I-94 is proof of asylum status.


What resources are available to potential asylum seekers?

Defensive filings are often expedited. Nonetheless, the asylum consideration process typically takes between six months and several years. (National Immigration Forum)  Significant backlogs for immigration hearings and processing compound the delay. The National Immigration Forum reported that as of July 2018, “there were over 733,000 pending immigration cases and the average wait time for an immigration hearing was 721 days.”

Asylum seekers are not granted an attorney by the U.S. government.  All efforts and costs related to legal assistance are the responsibility of the individual.  However, some attorneys and organizations offer pro bono services to those seeking asylum.

An applicant’s ability to obtain legal representation does impact his or her chances for approval by as much as five times, according to the NIF.  The organization notes that “in FY 2017, 90 percent of applicants without an attorney were denied, while almost half of those with representation were successful in receiving asylum.”

Potential asylum seekers are not eligible for refugee services and may not apply for a work permit while the asylum process is pending or if asylum is not granted.


How many individuals are granted asylum in the United States?

2017 is the most recent year for which data is available.  In that year, 26,568 individuals were grants asylum to the United States, 60% of those under affirmative status and 40% under defensive status.  (Migration Policy Institute, 2018)

The number of asylum cases has risen each year since 2015.  However, the denial rate for the applicants has increased in tandem from 44.5% in 2015 to 61.8% in 2017.  (National Immigration Forum, 2018)


How are asylum seekers impacted by the events of their plight?

Asylees, like other displaced persons, are likely to have experienced unhealthy, unsafe or otherwise traumatic life events.  Trauma occurs when a person’s ability to manage stress becomes overwhelmed by the degree or toxicity of the stressor (or series of stressors).

Conditions and experiences upon or during the process of achieving asylum may further aggravate outcomes of trauma.

However, it should be noted that asylum seekers, in the same vein as other refugees, are highly capable of resilience and positive social integration.

How can I get involved and incorporate this knowledge into my teaching?

Check out these amazing resources for building awareness and engaging in the solution.  These are student-friendly tools and lesson plans, so be sure to bring your learners into the discussion!

Nowhere Boy by Katherine March.  Chapter-by-chapter educators’ guide by Kirsten Cappy and Louise El Yaafouri.

World Refugee Day Toolkit:

Lesson Plan: Refugees/Asylum- Immigration History

Lesson Plan: Exploring Refugees and Asylum Seekers

 UNHCR: Teaching About Refugees

ADL: Anti-bias education: Migrant Caravan' and the People Seeking Asylum

Lesson Plans: Refugees and Asylum Seekers- The Advocates for Human Rights