I made requests under the Freedom of Information Act and obtained the notes of 24 interviews conducted at the Arlington Asylum Office, between May 2011 and May 2015. The longest set of notes was 19 pages; the shortest was 4 pages. I read them all, and I took notes on them.

Before I did my first asylum case, I read that an applicant can win if he suffered “harm” on account of a special reason. So, I thought these two subjects would be of primary interest to asylum officers. But they are not! Or, at least if measured by the number of questions asked, they certainly are not. Officers spend a great deal of time on other subjects. For each question such as “What happened to you in prison?” there will often be six or seven questions such as “Who do you live with here in the United States? Where did you work in June 2013? Where does your brother Ahmed live today?”

There were many similarities in the notes. What follows are some of the common questions, along with my own comments.

1. Did someone read your application back to you in your language?

An asylum application is at least ten pages long; often a package will

contain over 50 pages. All applicants answered YES.

2. How was your statement prepared?

The officer perhaps is seeking to uncover fraud- did the preparer make up a story, and tell the applicant to adopt it as his own? Or, did the applicant write down his story in his own language, and then ask someone to translate it? The officer prefers the latter scenario: in that case, the applicant should bring his original words to the interview

3. Why are you seeking asylum?

A somewhat rude, startling question. If someone asked you, “Why did you marry your spouse?” how would you answer? Should the applicant give a ten minute speech in response? A few applicants were able to respond: “I fear my government will kill me because of my political opinion.” That one sentence led to follow-up questions, but I think officers like that response.

4. How did you become interested in the political party you joined?

The officer has interviewed dozens of applicants who claim they were politically active and then suffered harm as a result. The officer wonders how genuine the applicant is. When the applicant responds by saying “I strongly agree with the platform of the party; I was very tired of the dictatorship; I finally joined because my best friend invited me;” or “my father was a member,” the officer appeared satisfied and moved on to other subjects. However, when the applicant responds by saying something like, “the party promotes democracy,” or “the party supports unity,” the officer often followed up with more questions.

5. What was the procedure to join that party?

This confused many applicants. The applicant who answered, “I went to the office of the party, I obtained an application form; I sat down and I filled it out, paid 50 francs, gave it to the clerk, and went home. A week later, they called me and invited me to a meeting;” apparently satisfied the officer.

Apparently, some parties have no application forms, no dues, and no rules. They just accept anyone. If that is true for your client, tell him to explain.

6. Did they give you a membership card?

The officers love cards! They apparently accept it as “physical” and true evidence of membership. One reason they like cards is because of the dates thereon. Two of the applicants gave information inconsistent with their cards. This annoyed the officers. Tell your client to read the dates on his card, before the interview. One officer asked, “How was the card issued to you?”

7. What were your activities as a member?

This was a hard question for many applicants. One answered, “We weren’t

doing any types of activities.” [!] Another answered, “I promoted the party.”

An answer the officer would like to hear would be: “During the ten weeks before the May election, I distributed pamphlets on the street to passersby, for about two hours, maybe 4-5 days per week. Sometimes, I went from door-to-door, knocking on doors, leaving pamphlets, for perhaps one hour, 4-5 days per week. One day, six of us took a bus to a village where we stayed for several hours, encouraging the people to vote for us.”

8. What happened at the meetings?

This is a hard question for many applicants. They answered by saying, “We

discussed plans.” “We discussed unity.” This annoyed the officers. I believe many applicants just sit in silence at meetings and listen to others lament and pontificate. If that is what your client did, then say so.

At some meetings, there was debate over future courses of action: Should we send a delegation to village X, or should we go to village Y? Should we broadcast messages on short-wave radios, or something else? Should we protest on Saturday, right before the election, or should we protest on the day of the election? If your client can remember anything that was debated, tell the officer.

9. What actually happened at the protest?

The officer has heard dozens of applicants say they protested in the streets in their country. Did the applicant really attend the protest, or is he just pretending? If Mr. A really attended the protest, as opposed to just reading that there was a protest, Mr. A would know things such as: how he traveled to it; who else was there, the temperature, how crowded it was, whether he had any emotions such as fear or excitement, whether there were bystanders, whether his feet got sore, how long it lasted, how close the police or soldiers were, if he got tired; how he got home afterwards.

10. Why did you protest?

Many applicants had trouble answering this. Isn’t the answer obvious? Nonetheless, the applicant should tell the truth: “I protested to show my opposition to my government.”

11. After the applicant just finished describing how he marched on the street

carrying a large sign telling the president to resign, and that police came and he was arrested, the officer asked, “Why were you arrested?”

Isn’t the answer obvious? Amazingly, there are applicants who answered by saying, “I don’t know.” I believe some officers did not listen to the previous answer, and just read questions off of a list. Regardless, tell your client to just answer what is asked. If he believes he was arrested because the officer did not want him to express his political opinion, then he should say so. The officer may just be testing the applicant. I have asked the same question of a client in my office; at times I get different answers. Does your client understand the basic law of asylum in the United States? i.e. that you win asylum if you suffered harm because of a special reason? Some clients have trouble understanding. Teach them.

A harder question, asked of one applicant raped in prison, “Why were you raped?” A nasty question! When she answered, “I don’t know,” the officer moved on to other subjects. If she had answered, “Because of my political opinion,” the officer may not have liked it.

12. How did you support yourself, or where did you work, from 2012-2014?

Work history, for some reason, is very important to the asylum officer. This history is asked for on page 4 of Form I-589; it should be prepared very carefully and accurately. The officer may be probing to see if the applicant was receiving money from a secret, bad source, such as a terrorist organization. If applicant says he was in prison for six weeks in 2013, the officer may ask how the employer responded to the situation. Your employer didn’t care if you were not at work for six weeks? Your employer didn’t ask where you were?

13. How did you pay for your travel?

The officer is probing, I guess, to see if applicant received money from a secret source. Many applicants are annoyed by this question, and answer evasively. That, in turn, annoys the officer. The officer then becomes more interested, and wonders why would applicant keep secrets from the officer? Is the applicant embarrassed about something?

When someone applies for a tourist visa, he must answer the questions in Form DS-160, such as

“name of person paying for your trip”

“your present employer”

“have you ever been arrested for any offense or crime?”

“intended length of stay in U.S.”

If applicant says he did not work for 24 months, that his family was in poverty, then where did the travel money come from? The officer may be probing into the existence of smuggling: did someone in the United States improperly facilitate the travel?

14. Show me your passport!

Officers believe stamps in passports over the testimony of applicants. So do I. Passports and visas are issued in cities: this helps determine chronology, travel and physical presence. If a passport was re-newed by the evil government, the officer will think, “Oh, you are so afraid of your government that you ask it for favors? Your government hates you so much that it does favors for you?”

15. When you weren’t being tortured, how did you spend your time in prison?

There is something insulting in this question: is the officer thinking

the applicant was not ever tortured, and was not even in prison? Tell your client to not feel annoyed. The officer is just doing his job.

An applicant who had actually spent time in prison might answer as follows:

“I sat on the floor of my cell for hours at a time. It was hot and boring. After being in prison for several days, they then made me do outdoor gardening for about six hours per day. But then I was returned to my hot, dark cell where I sat on the floor or tried to sleep. I did not talk very much to the other prisoners; they were from different tribes and did not want to talk to me.”

16. How were you released from prison? What happened on the last day of your imprisonment?

A common answer is “Well, all of a sudden one morning a guard opened the door of my cell, and motioned me to come out. He pointed down the hallway; I walked there, saw a door, I walked out. I found out later my father had paid a bribe to get me out.”

If the applicant was released another way: “The guard brought me to an office; I sat at a desk; I was asked to sign a pledge to do or not do something; then I walked out,” there will be follow up questions, such as, “So what happened next? Were you obedient? Your government had you in its custody on this particular date; at that time you were not injured and you were released? So now many months have passed; why would the government have any different attitude toward you?”

17. How did you get the arrest warrant?

This is a difficult question for many applicants. They think, “Well,

obviously, the government agent gave it to me; where else could it have come from?” so they give a short, bad answer.

I believe the officer wants to establish the “chain of custody,” a difficult concept for many. I believe the officer would be satisfied with this answer: “Well, one officer at the X police station wrote the warrant; he gave it to another officer, who drove his car to my house, who knocked on my door, it was answered by my wife; the officer handed it to my wife; she put it on the table; my son picked it up and brought it to my friend, Mr. Smith, who then scanned it into his computer and sent it as an email attachment to me. I do not know where the original is; I asked Mr. Smith to send me the original; but he has not done so. I sent him an email on May 12th; he has not responded. I fear that Mr. Smith is now hiding in the woods.”

18. How were you able to depart from your country?

The officer is suggesting that the fact that applicant was not arrested at the airport is evidence that the government does not care about the applicant. If a government is truly angry at someone, and wants to arrest them, why not arrest them at the airport? This line of thought assumes that the government is highly organized, with computers: the police in a small village enter the name of the dissident into a computer which is available and accessible to the officials at the airport. And also, the assumption is that officials at the airport are motivated to do their jobs.

However, some airport workers may be lazy, disobedient, or are opposed to the government themselves. Some police are lazy and/or do not have computers, or do not send information to airports. Ask the applicant his knowledge of the flow of information from a police station to a counter at an airport.

19. What was the worst thing that happened to you in your country?

Not an easy question to answer.

20. Why did you return to your country in 2013?

If an applicant was really tortured in 2012, then he would want to get out of his country as soon as possible, and stay out, thinks the officer. If someone voluntarily returns to a place, then perhaps he did not really suffer harm there, or he has no fear. If applicant had no fear in 2013, why should applicant have any fear in 2016?

Some applicants, having been tortured, return to their countries under duress: they had no choice: their host country would not let them stay longer; they had no money to get to the United States; they had to visit a sick relative; they had no visa to get to the United States.

21. How do you support yourself here in the United States?

Applicants are annoyed by this question, because they think it is quite irrelevant: they want to talk about being tortured in prison. But, Form I-589 asks about work history, up to the present. Some applicants are working without authorization; they don’t want to admit that, so they lie and say they are not working in the United States. This annoys officers.

22. Are you politically active here in the United States?

The officer is probing the depth of conviction of the applicant: if applicant claims to have had great anti-government passion in the old country, why wouldn’t the applicant continue political activities here in America?

The famous Mr. Mogharrabi was granted asylum because of his activities in the United States. He arrived in 1978; in 1981 he went to his embassy and insulted the workers and his country. Matter of Mogharrabi, 19 I&N Dec. 439, 448 (1987).

23. Is your government still interested in you, even though you departed

from your country years ago?

It is unlikely the government telephoned the applicant, or sent him a recent email. How do we know what a “silent” government is thinking?

Some applicants answered: “I believe they are still interested in me, because they never forget. Also, I have recently protested in front of my Embassy; I sent a certified letter to the Ambassador at my embassy; I spoke on a panel at Georgetown University. I believe my government monitors these things here in the United States.”

24. Is there anything else?

YES should be the answer. A nice question: an opportunity to tell about some harm the officer did not ask about; an opportunity to tell about applicant’s last conversation with someone still living in the country; an opportunity to repeat something, such as “I still have nightmares as a result from being raped.”

Many of the applicants, however, answered this with a NO.


The asylum officer will ask lots of seemingly irrelevant questions. That is what they do. The applicant should just answer, cheerfully, quickly, and confidently. If the officer wants to know, he wants to know.

Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

David L. Cleveland. David L. Cleveland, a staff attorney at Catholic Charities of Washington, DC, was Chair of the AILA Asylum Committee (2004-05) and has secured asylum or withholding for people from 46 countries.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.