This posting is by Elizabeth Rosenman, a Seattle asylum attorney and a member of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s pro bono panel. A former editor of UCLA’s law review, she has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. Among other publications, she has written for The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and most recently, The Hill.

When I’m helping a client prepare his I-589, the first thing I do is download the 10-page application, officially called the “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Form I-589 Application for Asylum,” from the USCIS website. The first half of the I-589 asks simple biographical questions and the second half probes for responses intended to tease out whether the applicant likely qualifies for asylum or is possibly barred from staying here permanently.

The form is written in plain English and even the questions that call for long answers are straightforward. Everything is self-explanatory. That’s why it’s tempting to skip over another document on the same website called “Instructions for I-589” -- a 14-page document that is far denser than the form it’s supposed to clarify.

Read the instructions.

The first time I did, I was stunned by how helpful they were. The instructions contain both a concise tutorial on asylum law and a superb how-to manual for preparing an entire asylum case, not just filling out the I-589.

There’s also a lot of practical stuff that isn’t immediately obvious to asylum seekers and inexperienced lawyers: The one-year time limit for submitting the I-589 in most circumstances, the rule that the form has to be either typed or filled out in black--not blue--ink, and the requirement that an asylum seeker can’t leave the U.S., even for an emergency, without prior approval unless he wants to forfeit his claim.

Only about two pages of the instructions actually offer help filling out the I-589, but who cares? The document is an invaluable legal tool. And it’s free. But there’s a flip side. The instructions are also confusing, misleading, annoying, and bizarre. My take: Reading the instructions is a must, but following them all is a big mistake.

Consider this--even before you finish the first sentence, you realize there’s an obvious problem. The instructions, like the I-589, are only printed in English. Nobody in our government appears to care that the vast majority of asylum seekers aren’t native English speakers.

Just as bad, the instructions leave out some basic information, like where asylum seekers temporarily living in certain states--California, Nevada, and Pennsylvania--should send the I-589 to get the process rolling. Immigration officials have divided each of these states into two parts, but the instructions don’t explain where the dividing line is.

Take California. The instructions say that affirmative asylum seekers living in Northern Californian should send their completed I-589 to a post office box in Lincoln, Nebraska. Those in Southern California are told to send their asylum applications to Laguna Niguel, California (asylum seekers in court follow a different set of rules). Is Fresno considered north or south? How about Bakersfield? The instructions are silent. Instead, a few phone numbers are listed in the instructions for the asylum seeker or her lawyer to call with questions. My clients have all lived in Washington State, so this hasn’t been an issue for me. But I couldn’t resist calling the first phone number listed, the one for USCIS’s National Customer Service Center, to see how hard it would be to get an answer.

Very hard, if you aren’t an attorney, it turns out. That general phone number has recorded messages for almost any immigration problem I’ve ever heard of, except the I-589 address question. I spent several minutes trying to get a customer care representative on the line to talk me through the problem. I couldn’t figure out how to do that. Every time I pushed a keypad number I thought would get me to a person, I instead got a recorded voice that referred me to the USCIS general website. So I called back again, this time taking advantage of the one keypad prompt that’s only for attorneys. In less than two minutes, a USCIS employee came on the line and cheerfully offered to help. Instantly, she pulled up a directory of which California counties were included in one address or the other.

“Why not list this on the I-589 instructions pages?” I asked. “We don’t really know why they wouldn’t,” she said. Me either. Given a chance, I’m not sure I could dream up a way to make the task of addressing an I-589 more complicated than the one our government has already put in place.

Another complaint: The instructions leave out some key facts. For instance, they note that people who are granted asylum “may eventually adjust to lawful permanent resident status.” That means an asylum seeker who is granted asylum may, a year later, apply for a green card. So what’s the big deal? The instructions omit the most important part--an asylee is also eligible to apply to become a U.S. citizen, with all of the rights and protections that come with citizenship, four years after getting a green card. He’d probably figure the citizenship part out somewhere along the way. Why not let him know from the start?

Then there’s an omission that I find mean spirited and annoying: The instructions never mention that documents submitted as part of an asylum case don’t need to be notarized. All of my clients have needlessly paid money to a Notary Public to translate a few documents before I began representing them. They could have instead had a friend do the translating and used the extra money to buy food or bus fare.

Even more troubling, the instructions contain some misleading advice. At one point, they say “you are strongly urged to attach additional written statements and documents to support your claim.” “Strongly urged” sounds scary. Don’t worry. I’ve ignored that instruction for every client. Let me explain.

Remember that rule about asylum seekers not being allowed to request work authorization until 150 days after USCIS receives the I-589? That clock starts ticking whether or not an asylum applicant submits all of his supporting documents with the I-589 or just the bare I-589. Since all of my clients are anxious to get legal work authorization, I quickly fill out and submit the I-589 to get the 150-day clock going.

Then, after it’s in the mail, I begin the long process of gathering the supporting documents. I don't send in those documents, which make up the bulk of the asylum case, until closer to the date of a client’s court hearing or asylum interview.

Two paragraphs later, the instructions give horrible advice: “You can amend or supplement your application at the time of your asylum interview with an asylum officer and at your hearing in immigration court….” That’s not true. Asylum officers and immigration judges have various rules about when evidence is due. If an asylum seeker misses that cutoff, he may be barred from submitting crucial documents later. This isn’t a problem for a lawyer who has been through the rigmarole a few times and is aware of the rules. But what about an asylum seeker who has been unable to obtain a lawyer?

Then there’s this bizarre fact: The instructions explain that an asylum seeker attending an interview who doesn’t speak English fluently must bring an interpreter and cover the cost. But if the asylum seeker is hearing impaired, that’s a different story. In that instance, the government will supply a sign language interpreter in any language--on the house.

Enough complaining. Even though I’m aware of most potential pitfalls, I always re-read the instructions the night before meeting with a client to fill out an I-589. They are updated frequently without prior warning--oops, another complaint--so I always check to see if anything important has changed.