Applying for asylum in the US takes, on average, 6 months, 2 interviews and one big decision

Updated 3:37 PM ET, Tue May 1, 2018

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(CNN)When we think of people coming to the United States to escape danger and persecution, we tend to think of refugees. But the caravan of Central American men, women and children currently languishing at the US-Mexico border has turned national attention to another type of endangered group: asylum seekers.

In the United States, applying for asylum is a completely different process than arriving to the country as a refugee. Asylum seekers also tend to be of different nationalities than refugees.
According to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, China was the country with the highest number of citizens seeking asylum in the United States in 2015, followed by El Salvador, Guatemala and Egypt.
The country that had the most asylum request denied? Mexico.
So what does the asylum process look like? And to whom does it apply?

Asylum status isn't the same as refugee status

When people request asylum, they are essentially seeking protection from violence or persecution that keep them from feeling safe in their home country or keep them from returning safely to their home country. In order for someone to qualify for asylum, they must meet the definition of a "refugee" as laid out by the Immigration and Nationality Act.
    And yes, there is a difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker. Refugee status is granted to people who are outside the United States. Asylum is granted to people who are either already in the country or are seeking entry and asylum at a border.

    There are two paths to asylum

    There are two ways to request asylum.
    • If someone has been in the US for less than a year, or is seeking asylum at a port of entry, it is considered affirmative asylum.
    • If someone is facing deportation from the US or is caught trying to enter the US illegally, they can attempt to claim asylum in order to stay. This is known as defensive asylum and has a very different timeline of events that feels more like a legal trial than a bureaucratic waiting game.
    Since there are a lot more variables with that kind of asylum, we'll focus on the affirmative asylum process.

    There's a LOT of paperwork

    The most important document for asylum seekers is the I-589, the Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal.
    It's not the longest government document ever, but the 12 pages of questions and 14 pages of instructions are understandably extensive. There are several fields that require "detailed and specific" accounts of persecution or fear of persecution, as well as requests for dates and events that could have taken place years ago. If spouses or children are to be included on the application, there's even more to provide, including photographs.
    Also, if someone is newly in the United States, they may immediately run into a problem that could follow them throughout the asylum process: Providing a reliable address where they can be contacted.

    ... and a biometrics appointment

    Once the process has begun, applicants will be scheduled for a "biometric services appointment," usually conducted at one of dozens of Application Support Centers located around the country.