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What’s the Difference Between Political Asylum and Refugee Status?

political asylum vs refugee status

Considering our current political climate, most of us are sure to be familiar with terms such as political asylum or refugee status. As politicians debate immigration and foreign wars create refugee crises, the news is filled with stories of individuals trying to find a better life for themselves in new countries.

Here in the United States, we accepted just under 70,000 refugees in 2015 alone, according to the U.S Department of State. Of those, around 22,500 came from Africa, 18,500 came from East Asia, 2,300 came from Europe, 2,000 came from Latin America, and 25,000 came from the Middle East and South Asia.

However, while many people are familiar with the terms, they don’t fully grasp the specifics that define these two concepts. For example, many people don’t understand the difference between political asylum vs. refugee status. In fact, the differences between the two may change, depending on how they are defined.

refugee status in the US

Understanding the difference, however, is crucial, especially for those seeking political asylum or looking into how to apply for refugee status in the future. In fact, for those applying for political asylum, understanding the intricacies of these political designations could mean life or death.

That’s why we’re putting together this guide on the differences between asylum vs. refugee status. For those who may need to claim political refugee status to escape danger in their country of origin, please know there are those of us who are ready to fight to support you. And if you are an American citizen who wants to learn better how to help refugees and asylees, or who are just curious about what incoming refugees may mean for your community, we hope this guide will clear some of the concerns and frankly false information about good people who need our help.

What Classifies a Refugee?

Let’s begin by properly defining a refugee. While immigrants of all types may come to the United States seeking a better life with better opportunities, refugees are a specific type of immigrant with an equally special legal status that distinguishes them from most immigrants.

  • Must reside outside the U.S.: A refugee is, first and foremost, someone who currently resides outside of the United States. They may no longer be in their country of origin, but they have not yet entered the U.S. Many refugees live in refugee camps, typically located just outside of the country they are seeking to escape. Depending on the nature of the conflict they are fleeing, these camps can either be sufficient, yet temporary, solutions, or they may be dangerous and unsanitary.
  • Must be a special humanitarian concern: This leads us to the second criterion for being classified as a refugee by the U.S. government. All refugees need to be a special humanitarian concern for the United States. A refugee is not merely down on their luck. They are in a state of humanitarian crisis. That’s why the United States classifies them separately from other immigrants and offers them a separate entrance procedure for coming to the U.S.
  • Must have a well-founded fear of persecution: Third, a refugee must demonstrate that they either were persecuted or have a well-founded fear of being persecuted should they return to their home country. This persecution might be due to their race, political opinion, ethnicity, religion, nationality or previous or current participation in a particular social group. Often, highly publicized refugee populations — like those fleeing Syria or Burma — are members of persecuted minorities who run the risk of being killed or unfairly jailed simply because they practice a different religion, are a member of a particular political party or are a representative or a particular minority ethnicity.

For their fears to be considered well-founded, a refugee must demonstrate both subjective and objective fear. That means they must provide evidence of how they personally were or will be persecuted, as well as display objective evidence from other sources that persecution is happening to their countrymen. This holds true even if the refugee has not yet experienced personal persecution. If other practitioners of their religion, for example, have suffered severe persecution, a refugee is considered to have a well-founded fear of future persecution.

Even if conditions improve in a refugee’s country of origin, they may still be able to demonstrate a well-founded fear. If persecution was severe enough, there might be a reasonable possibility of the same persecution returning sometime in the future. Also, if the past persecution sufficiently destroyed a person’s home — meaning they still risk a future humanitarian crisis due to homelessness — or if there is sufficient risk of continued social stigma should they return to their home country, they may still be granted refugee crisis. However, in such cases, the United States may try to argue the refugee crisis has been alleviated, and thus the person is no longer eligible for refugee status.

Finally, while persecution often comes at the hands of an oppressive government, persecutors need not necessarily be government agents. In war-torn countries, like what is currently happening in Syria, militia groups or rebels may be considered persecutors. Criminal organizations, in some cases, can also be considered persecutors, but only if they are targeting an individual because of who they are, as opposed to their actions. Therefore, an organized crime syndicate whose members are targeting an individual for failing to pay a bribe is not considered a persecutor. However, if the same organization is targeting a religious minority, members of that minority may be eligible for refugee status.

  • Cannot be firmly resettled elsewhere: Fourth, a refugee cannot be firmly resettled in another country. Many countries accept refugees. For example, many Syrians have been resettled in Europe, especially Germany. Because these individuals have already received refugee status and resettlement support, refugee status is no longer possible in the United States. While they may still be considered refugees in their new home, the United States wants to focus their refugee resettlement efforts on those who have not yet found stability.
  • Must be considered admissible: Finally, a refugee must be considered admissible. Even if someone outside the U.S. meets all the other qualifying criteria, there are certain conditions that could still disqualify them. If they have a criminal background, hold political opinions that render them a security risk or pose a health risk should they be allowed in the United States, they will likely be disqualified.

However, language, religion, education, gender or family size are not factors when determining admissibility. Regardless of someone’s religion or level of education, they can be admitted and supported as a refugee if they meet the other criteria.

support for refugees

Once refugees come to the United States, they receive support that is not available to other immigrants — including cultural orientation, medical care, temporary housing and job placement assistance, as well as loans for travel costs. While support is temporary, these services are vital for those with little to no possessions who are often coming to a country in which they do not speak the language or understand the culture. Temporary services allow refugees to acclimate to their new home and become self-sufficient more quickly.

Also, refugees do not need the same work documents, known as Employment Authorizations Documents (EADs), most immigrants require to work in the United States. Once refugees have been in the United States for a year, they are eligible for a green card, which establishes permanent residency, at which point they have the same legal status as any other green card holder, regardless of how they immigrated.

What Is Political Asylum?

Unlike refugees, those seeking political asylum either apply when they reach a port of entry into the United States or after they have already entered, often as undocumented immigrants.

The conditions that drive a political asylum seeker are the same as those that cause someone to apply for refugee status. However, a political asylum seeker is typically in a situation in which they cannot afford to wait for the refugee process to unfold or had to leave their country of origin so quickly that they arrived before ever settling in a camp.

Like refugees, political asylum seekers must demonstrate they cannot or are reasonably unwilling to return to their country of origin because of the risk of persecution. In this sense, their arrival in the United States — even if they entered without following proper immigration procedures — is deemed excusable, considering what drove them to the United States.

proving persecution for political asylum

Once granted asylum, an asylee’s legal status is similar to that of the refugee. They will receive the same type of services, and like a refugee, do not require an EAD to work. Moreover, once they have been in the United States as an asylee for a year, they will likewise be eligible for a green card, thus establishing their permanent residency.

Those on temporary visas — whether as students or tourists — can also apply for asylum. For some, applying for a temporary visa was always intended to be the first step toward applying for asylum. However, know that doing so and having your application denied can prevent you from obtaining a travel visa in the future.

If an asylum seeker is an undocumented immigrant, they can also still apply for asylum. If they have not yet been discovered as an undocumented immigrant, they can apply using an affirmative asylum application. However, doing so exposes the individual to discovery, and could be especially dangerous should their asylum application be denied. As such, an undocumented immigrant seeking asylum should always do so in conversation with an immigration attorney who will be able to help them assess the risks.

Additionally, if an undocumented immigrant has been discovered and is in the removal process, they can still apply for asylum, applying directly to the immigration judge. Again, doing so with an immigration attorney increases the possibility of having a successful outcome.

Finally, know that submitting a frivolous asylum application is extremely risky. If authorities discover you have applied using falsified information, or were intentionally exaggerating your claims of persecution, you may be immediately deported and permanently barred entry into the United States in the future.

What Is the Difference Between Refugees and Asylees?

Obviously, refugees and asylum seekers have a lot in common. Both come from countries of origin where their very lives are at risk, and both end up with similar legal statuses that distinguishes them from other immigrants.

The main difference lies in the application process. Refugees apply before traveling to the United States. In this sense, their arrival to the United States is more secure. The moment a person with official refugee status boards the plane to the United States, they know they will be able to enter the country and have legal status.

applying for refugee status

Asylum seekers are less secure. If officials deny their asylum application at a port of entry, they must return home. If their application gets denied after entering the United States as an undocumented immigrant or while on a temporary visa, they expose themselves to deportation.

In this sense, the asylum status application process is designed solely for those who genuinely have no other options. If you are in immediate danger and need to escape persecution — or if you did escape persecution, but had to enter the United States without proper documentation — asylum may be your best option. However, if you have the opportunity to apply for refugee status, you have a much better chance of limiting your risk of negative outcomes. Having said that, because of the length of the refugee application process, some find by the time their paperwork is processed, the conditions in their home country have improved to the point that they no longer qualify. The asylum application process is much quicker, and thus may be the best option under rapidly changing political conditions.

Regardless, by working with an immigration attorney with extensive experience with refugee and asylum applications, you will be able to make the best choice for your situation while also improving your chances of having your application accepted.

What Is the Application Process for Both?

Whether you are applying for refugee status or political asylum, the application process is extensive. In both cases, the U.S. government wants to be sure you are in fact being persecuted, that you do not pose a risk to the United States and that entrance into the United States is your best chance for escaping a humanitarian crisis.

Because of the intricacies of the application process, you will be required to provide extensive documentation, demonstrating both who you are, as well as your experiences and affiliations with persecuted groups.

If you are applying for refugee status, you will need to contact an overseas U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office. Because the United States uses refugee status to alleviate humanitarian crises, they tend to establish USCIS offices and contacts in places where large refugee populations already exist. Additionally, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also establishes points of contact to assist those seeking refugee status. As an international organization, they will direct individuals to a refugee-accepting nation that best fits the individual seeking refugee status.

Once you have your contact, you need to collect documentation of your persecution. This can be evidence of general dangers, as well as evidence that establishes your affiliation with a persecuted group. More extensive documentation makes it more likely your application will be accepted.

Additionally, you need to arrange for a financial sponsor. These groups help provide the necessary funding for your time as a refugee. There are many organizations — several affiliated with American church organizations — which are dedicated to providing these services. If you have a contact in the United States, finding a sponsor will be easier. However, organizations also perform outreach to make connections with refugees in need.

Applying for asylum depends on your current status. You will still need to fill out a form with USCIS. However, if you are currently in the country, your best approach to work through an immigration attorney who can guide you through the process and ensure that your documentation is in order.

Contact Texas Immigration Attorneys at Morales & Sparks

If you are in Texas, know that here at the Law Offices of Morales & Sparks, we specialize in treating immigration cases, including political asylum applications, with care and sensitivity. We are committed to keeping families together and keeping dreams alive.

If you require an immigration attorney or want to explore your immigration status options, contact us today!

Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is to provide general information and is not to be constituted as legal advice. If you need help with a specific issue, please seek the advice of an attorney.