Q: What is “asylum” and who is eligible?

A: “Asylum” is an immigration status offering protection and legal residency in the United States to people who have fled their home countries. Applicants must prove they cannot return to their home country “because of a persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Q: Are asylum seekers different from refugees?

A: Yes. People given refugee status applied for residency in the U.S. while they were still living in another country, often in refugee camps. They are resettled in the U.S. through a government program that supports them during the transition. Asylum seekers, by contrast, request legal residency after they have already come to the U.S., either by sneaking into the country or by coming with temporary visas.

Q: Are asylum applicants “illegal aliens”?

A: They are considered “lawfully present” in the U.S. and are protected from deportation while their case is pending (unless they commit a deportable crime). An asylum seeker may have first arrived in the U.S. illegally, or without permission. Asylum seekers in Maine, however, typically entered the U.S. legally with valid visas that have since expired.

Q: How does the asylum process work?

A: An asylum officer reviews whether the applicant’s story meets the criteria based on testimony and any additional evidence needed to support claims of persecution. If asylum is ultimately denied, the applicant can appeal the decision in immigration court.

Q: How long does the asylum application process take?

A: Federal law says asylum applicants will have an initial interview within 45 days of filing and will be granted a decision within 180 days. In reality, asylum applicants living in Maine are waiting up to two years for interviews because of a growing backlog of applications nationally. Applicants who are denied and file appeals wait even longer.

Q: Can asylum applicants work while their cases are pending?

A: Federal law requires asylum seekers to wait 150 days from their filing date before requesting a work permit, which cannot be issued for another 30 days, bringing the minimum waiting period to roughly six months. The waiting period can be stopped for a host of reasons, resulting in longer delays. Congress and federal agencies began requiring the waiting period in the early 1990s in response to reports that people who were not facing persecution at home were abusing the system by filing for asylum in order to immediately get working papers.

Q: Are asylum applicants eligible for welfare?

A: In 1996, Congress passed a welfare-reform law prohibiting states or municipalities from providing taxpayer-funded welfare benefits to many undocumented immigrants – unless a state passes a law specifically allowing immigrants to receive public benefits. Roughly a half-dozen states, including Maine, were providing some form of welfare benefits to asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants and others not recognized as legal residents as of 2011, according to data compiled by the National Immigration Law Center and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Earlier this year, the LePage administration cited the federal law and directed municipalities to stop providing state-funded General Assistance to “undocumented, illegal immigrants.” The attorney general disagreed, saying Maine law requires that the aid be given out based on need alone. Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association are now challenging the LePage administration’s directive in court.

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