The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) provides free legal help to some refugees and displaced people.
- IRAP helps some people find services and prepare refugee and visa applications.
- IRAP is not part of any government, IOM, or UNHCR.
- IRAP cannot grant refugee status or visas or speed up cases.
- IRAP cannot provide financial help, find or pay for housing, or find jobs.
- All of IRAP’s help is free. No one affiliated with IRAP has the right to ask you for money or any other service.
IRAP decides to help people based on their need and eligibility for immigration status. IRAP does not decide to help people based on any other social or political or religious criteria.
This website provides general information about legal processes available to some refugees. It is not meant as legal advice for individual applications.
This information was revised in August 2023. Requirements may change. Always check for current requirements from the government or agency deciding your request.
If you are in a refugee emergency, we recommend that you contact the UNHCR office in the country where you live .
This guide provides information on what happens when a person without a U.S. passport gets to the airport in the United States. It provides information on how to ask for asylum if you are scared of being sent back to your country.
What do I have to do as a non-US citizen when I get to the airport in the United States?
After getting off the plane, you will get in line for the inspection point with everyone else. At the inspection point, the officer will:
- Look at your travel documents.
- Take your fingerprints.
- Photograph you.
The officer may:
- Ask questions about your travel documents, like why you are coming to the country and who you will be staying with. It is important that you answer truthfully.
- Look at items that you are bringing into the country. The government claims the right to look at messages, photos, and videos on cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices.
At this point, the officer may let you into the country or they may take you to another inspection point to ask you more questions. This is called secondary screening.
What is secondary screening?
Secondary screening is the government’s chance to ask you more questions. You will be taken to a waiting area if the officer decides to put you in secondary screening.
You have the right to access food, water, medication, a space for prayer, and a bathroom while you are waiting.
You may be waiting for a while for your case to be called. If you are waiting for a long time, for example over two hours, you can ask to call a person in the United States who is waiting for you to arrive.
What do I do if it seems like I might not be allowed into the country?
If you think that the officer might not let you into the country and you fear harm if you are returned to your country, you may have the right to apply for asylum. By applying for asylum, you are claiming that you are a refugee. A refugee is someone who is afraid of persecution or has been persecuted in their home country because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
If you want to apply for asylum, tell the officer that you are afraid of returning to your country. Once you have said this, the officer cannot deport you. The officer will either keep you at the airport or take you to a detention center.
The next step is for you to do a credible fear interview. A credible fear interview is an interview with a government officer who will decide whether you have enough of a chance at winning asylum to allow you to stay in the country. You have the right to find an attorney to help you at your credible fear interview.
If you pass the credible fear interview, you can apply for asylum with an immigration judge. This process may take months or even longer. The government may try to keep you in detention during this time, but you can ask for parole. Parole allows you to be free while you apply for asylum. You can be given parole if you prove your identity and show that you will come to immigration hearings and that you are not a danger to the community.
You can find an attorney to help you with asylum through this government resource that lists free attorneys or this website that lists free attorneys.
If you can, make sure there is a family member or a friend in the United States who will know if you have any problems at the airport. Tell the person your flight information and plan to contact them as soon as you get to the United States.
What can I do to make sure that I don’t have problems at the airport?
Make sure to pack all of your travel documents in your carry-on luggage. This includes your passport and other travel authorization. Do not open travel packets given to you by IOM.