Federal law allows people from other countries to seek asylum in the United States if they fear persecution at home. Here's a look at how the system works:
What qualifies people for asylum?
To be granted asylum, applicants must meet three requirements, laid out by the U.N. Convention on Refugees in 1951 and adopted by the United States.
Applicants must prove:
1) They have a "reasonable fear" of persecution in their home country. Reasonable fear is defined by the United Nations as at least a 10 percent chance of persecution.
2) They must fear persecution on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social class (the most amorphous of the five categories — it can include things like sexuality or caste).
3) They must prove the government of their home country is either involved in the persecution or unable to control it.
Is there any reason the government can deny asylum?
The government can deny asylum by saying an applicant fails to meet one of these requirements; by saying conditions in the country have significantly changed since the application was made; or by saying the applicant could live safely in another part of his or her own country.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently ruled that victims of domestic violence may not be included in the members-of-social-classes provision. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services later expanded that ruling to include victims of gang violence.
"Persecution" is left undefined in U.S. asylum law, but is generally considered to be loss of life or liberty, torture or severe bodily harm, being detained for an extended period of time, or being frequently threatened with harm or death by a credible source.
It is incumbent on the asylum-seeker to show that his persecution derives from his membership in one of the five categories, and that the persecution or threats come from the government or forces the government can't control.
What issues can cause an asylum claim to be rescinded?
Waiting more than one year after entry to the U.S. before filing an application for asylum; having been involved in persecution of another group of people; committing a serious crime; or being a threat to U.S. security can derail an asylum claim.
How long does it take for a claim to be processed?
In January, there was a backlog of more than 300,000 asylum applications in the U.S.
That month, the Trump administration instituted a policy in which the latest applications filed were the first ones dealt with. The administration said the policy change was meant to deter frivolous claims of asylum meant to buy the applicant more time in the United States.
Reuters reported in January that asylum-seekers regularly wait five years or more for their cases to be heard.
Is there a difference between applying for asylum versus applying as a refugee?
Applying for asylum is a different process than applying to come to the U.S. as a refugee. Those who are allowed to apply for immigration status from outside the United States are refugees and come only if they are granted refugee status.
Asylum-seekers come into the U.S. and apply either at the border or once inside the country, whether they entered legally or not.
"There's nothing illegal about crossing the border to seek asylum," Lindsay Harris, vice chair of the national asylum committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said.
Harris said Sessions' new interpretation of asylum guidelines was a "huge setback."
"He overturned a couple of decades of jurisprudence on that issue. ... [It] will be challenged throughout the circuit courts for many years to come. The rates of denial for credible fear interviews have skyrocketed," Harris said.
She told VOA there was a "huge increase" in the number of appeals of asylum denials, particularly in certain jurisdictions, like the 9th U.S. Circuit.
"Half of [an immigration judge's] docket is immigration appeals. When people aren't getting the protection they need and it's a case of life or death, they will appeal," she added. "Definitely, lives will be affected. People will die."
Immigration records show that fiscal 2017 had the largest number of asylum cases decided in one year since fiscal 2005; about 30,179 cases were decided by judges in 2017.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University in New York state reports that asylum grants increased, but denials grew faster as well.
The denial-of-asylum rate was 61.8 percent, and it was the fifth year in a row that denial rates had risen. About five years ago, the figure was 44.5 percent.
What does the process of seeking asylum entail?
Application for asylum is more than just a "reasonable fear" interview — applicants also must fill out a 12-page questionnaire written only in English. If family members are included on the application, there are more questions to fill out, and photos must be provided. Documentation must be provided to back up claims of reasonable fear.
Applicants also must get fingerprints and other identification tests at an Application Support Center. Some states have only one or two support centers.
Applicants can get legal help but must find their own lawyers. They can either pay someone or avail themselves of pro bono help. If they don't speak English, applicants must bring their own translators.
Asylum officers decide whether to grant asylum after the interview. If it is denied, the applicant gets a short amount of time to appeal the decision.
The president of the United States sets a yearly limit on the number of asylum-seekers and refugees the country will accept.
How do Sessions' changes in asylum guidelines impact people?
Victoria Nielson, attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., said Sessions' recent removal of domestic violence from the social-class grounds for asylum, followed by USCIS's announcement that victims of gang violence would also not qualify, are broad proclamations that are disturbing to immigration advocates.
"One of the most important foundations of asylum law is that each case is to be judged on a case-by-case basis," she said. The recent exclusions run "counter to what the appellate process is — that each case needs to be judged on its own merits."
She said the recent exclusions from asylum qualifications affect citizens of the northern triangle of Central America — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — and added that many Trump administration decisions seemed to be targeting those fleeing violence.
"People who have just completed a very traumatic journey and don't speak English have little way of knowing how to navigate the system," Nielson said.
Stephen Yale-Loehr of Cornell University, a leading professor of immigration law and facilitator of an asylum clinic at Cornell, said that though there had been changes in asylum policy, people with good cases can still apply.
"But they need to be better prepared than ever before, and they need to make sure their testimony is consistent. … People can still win asylum if they have well-prepared cases," Yale-Loehr said.
"In my experience, most people who apply for asylum do so out of desperation, not because they're trying to game the system," he added. "We have an international commitment to make sure people are not sent back to the place they would be persecuted. It's not just something nice to do, it's our obligation to protect those people."