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Asylum seekers play a key role in the US immigration system, as they seek refuge from persecution in their home countries. The US provides a platform for individuals who fear persecution or harm based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Exploring the processes, statistics, and trends surrounding asylum seekers can clarify the challenges these migrants encounter when seeking safety in the US, and can focus immigration reform for those most vulnerable populations.

What is asylum?

Under current laws, migrants who arrive in the US may apply for asylum status if they have suffered persecution or fear they will suffer persecution if they return to their home country. These individuals fall under the category of asylum seekers.

When someone seeks asylum in the US, they can follow one of two processes: affirmative or defensive asylum.

What is affirmative asylum?

An affirmative asylum seeker submits an asylum application to the Department of Homeland Security after entering the country. In this case, they proactively seek asylum status.

What is defensive asylum?

A defensive asylum seeker requests asylum as a defense against deportation during a standard removal proceeding. This means they are already being deported when they claim asylum to stay in the US.

The processing of asylum claims falls under the jurisdiction of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of Homeland Security.

How many asylum seekers enter the US?

Between 1990 and 2021, the US admitted 767,950 asylum seekers into the country. In 2021 alone, the US admitted 17,692 asylees, a 42.9% drop from the year before, and the lowest year since 1994.

The US has historically approved more affirmative asylee applicants (481,612 total acceptances since 1990) than defensive asylee applicants (286,338 accepted since 1990).

However, the proportion of defensive asylum seekers has increased in recent years. Defensive asylum was granted to 26.4% of all asylees in the 1990s compared to 39.0% in the 2010s.

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Where do asylum seekers come from?

Admittances rose between 2018 and 2019 due to a surge of Venezuelan asylum seekers, highlighting the economic and political crisis in the country which continues today.

However, Chinese nationals were the largest group of asylum seekers over the past decade, comprising approximately 63,000 people, or more than one-fifth of total asylees entering the US between fiscal years 2012 and 2021.

More Chinese nationals received asylee status defensively than affirmatively, meaning most admittances occurred after people applied for asylum during deportation proceedings.

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Over 30% of defensive asylum seekers also come from Latin American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela. This is largely due to an increase in migrants arriving at the Southern border in recent years, reaching a record high in December 2022.

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Asylee admittances vary greatly between different countries due to the threat of persecution for individuals of different races, religions, nationalities, membership in a particular social group, or political opinions.

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With the threat of political persecution in certain countries around the world, the US asylum program can provide a humanitarian safeguard for people at risk. According to the US Refugee Admissions Program, understanding these trends is crucial for addressing global challenges of individuals seeking safety in the US.

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2021 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics