Each year, tens of thousands of immigrants flock to the United States to avoid persecution or hardship. Many of these individuals are eligible to apply for asylum or refugee status. While the terms “asylum” and “refugee” are closely related, they have some distinct differences defined under U.S. immigration laws. Both asylum seekers and refugees have the opportunity to gain legal residency in the U.S. if they complete certain requirements. Federal laws and regulations govern these processes but requests are determined on a case-by-case basis. Once granted asylum or refugee status, immigrants are able to gain permanent residency and U.S. citizenship.
Differentiating Between Asylum and Refugee Statuses
In the 2015 fiscal year, the United States resettled nearly 70 thousand refugees. In the 2013 fiscal year, the U.S. granted asylum status to over 25 thousand. The primary difference between these two groups of immigrants focuses on where a person applies. Immigrants outside of the United States must apply for refugee status. Immigrants who have made it to the U.S. border or are currently living in the U.S. may apply for asylum status. This does not include people who left their home to seek a more prosperous life. These people are known as economic migrants.
There are many more refugees than asylum seekers granted legal status each year. This is no coincidence. The U.S. government has much tighter restrictions on who can and cannot gain refugee status. Each year, the President of the United States determines how many refugees will be allowed to enter the country in a given fiscal year. Iraq, Bhutan, and Burma send the largest groups of refugees to the U.S., while asylum seekers are often sent from China, Venezuela, Egypt, and Ethiopia.
The steps for becoming a refugee or asylee also differ. To apply for refugee status, a person must get in contact with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). In some cases, immigrants may also contact the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to obtain an application. To apply for asylum status, a person can submit an affirmative asylum application if not yet placed in removal proceedings. If a person is already in removal proceedings, the individual can submit an application for asylum status to the immigration court judge in the U.S.
Gaining Asylum and Refugee Eligibility
Not all immigrants qualify for asylum or refugee status. To be eligible, you must meet specific requirements. First you must show that you are unable or unwilling to return to your home country due to persecution in the past or a founded fear that you may be persecuted if you return. Persecution must also be related to race, nationality, religion, membership in a specific social group, or a political opinion. The government follows a strict definition of persecution.
To persecute means to punish, harass, oppress, injure, or cause physical or physiological harm to someone. While there is no one-size-fits-all example of persecution, many cases involve such acts as violence, threats, inappropriate imprisonment, torture, or the denial of basic human freedoms or rights. The U.S. government also considers specific situations persecution, such as being forced to undergo a program known as “coercive population control” which is designed to help victims of forced sterilization and abortion.
To qualify as a refugee in the U.S., you must meet the definition of a refugee and be referred by the U.S. Embassy or The UN Refugee Agency. You must not be resettled in another country and you must not be an immediate relative of a special immigrant or U.S. citizen. You must also be living in the U.S. Once you complete the proper documentation and your status is approved, your immediate family will also be granted refugee status. There are fewer qualifications for asylum status. You will need to apply within a year of entering the U.S. but this may be waived.
Benefits and Limitations of Asylum and Refugee Seekers
Both asylum and refugee seekers have certain responsibilities that they must adhere to in order to avoid consequences. However, asylum and refugee status do come with several benefits. If you are granted asylum status, you are authorized to work in the U.S. even if you don’t have an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). You are also eligible for certain employment services from One-Stop Career Centers, such as career counseling, job search assistance, and occupational skills training.
As a refugee, you may immediately apply for a Social Security card. You may also request derivative asylum status for your immediate family, including your spouse and children who you listed on your asylum application. You may also want to apply for permanent residence or a green card after one year of living in the United States. To apply, you must file Form I-485, or an Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. You may apply for yourself and each qualifying member of your family who would like to become permanent residents.
While there are many benefits of applying for asylum or refugee status in the U.S., there are some limitations and drawbacks. The process of gaining asylum status is significantly more complex than for individuals applying for refugee status. In some cases, applicants may be held in detention while their status request is being considered. This may occur if a person has entered the U.S. illegally. Asylum seekers are also not able to seek employment authorization while they are applying for asylum status. These individuals need to wait 150 days.
Millions of people from all over the world are displaced by famine, war, and political unrest year after year. Other people are forced to flee their home countries to escape threats of torture or death by persecutors. In the U.S., the government may protect these individuals by offering asylum or refugee status. If you are seeking asylum or refugee status in the U.S., you may be looking for additional information or assistance with your case. It may be in your best interest to contact an experienced attorney who has a proven track record of successfully managing asylum and refugee cases in the U.S.
Beeraj Patel, Esq.
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