A refugee is a person unable or unwilling to return to his or her native country due to a well-founded fear of persecution or because the person’s life or freedom would be threatened. To apply for refugee status, the applicant must be physically located outside the United States. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service the U.S. offers refugee protection “based on an inherent belief in human rights and in ending or preventing the persecution of individuals.”

Refugees are in a separate category from political asylum applicants.  They are admitted to the United States under executive orders that mirror U.S. participation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees worldwide.  Refugees are admitted for permanent residence, or temporarily, until situations in their home countries are resolved and they are able to return home.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is a “Refugee” Defined?

Any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Basically, the person must show that they have been persecuted or have a well founded fear of being persecuted based on their traits, beliefs, or membership in a group. The applicant is stating that they can’t return to their home country out of fear for their safety. A person who can prove their case will find a new home in the United States assuming that there is nothing which would make them “ineligible.” An otherwise qualified refugee could be “ineligible” for a number of reasons including past violations of U.S. immigration law, being infected with certain communicable diseases, or because the person has engaged in certain criminal activity.

How Many Refugees does the United States take in each year?

Every year, the United States takes in about 70,000- 80,000 individuals who are in need of a safe place to live. This is part of a global effort to end persecution based on factors like race, religion and political beliefs.

Congress, in conjunction with President, determines the number of refugees that the U.S. will accept for the year. The open spots are then allocated among different regions of the world. Then, people who live in certain designated countries will have the chance to apply for refugee status.


Who can Apply for Refugee Status?

Not just anyone can apply for refugee status. You must be of a designated nationality and come under the processing priorities of the U.S. refugee program. The eligible countries and the processing priorities are adjusted periodically. If a person is eligible to apply for refugee status then they will be required to prove that they are, in fact, a refugee.

What are the Differences between Asylum and Refugees?

The purpose of political asylum and refugee status is to grant refuge to individuals who are unable or unwilling to return their home country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Although in theory the principle on which asylum and refugee status are based are the same, in practice the evidence required differs substantially.

The main difference between a refugee and an asylee in U.S. Immigration law is two fold. The first is that a refugee applies for sanctuary outside the United States. Typically an applicant for refugee status applies directly to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees for recognition as a refugee. The United Nations then run an Interpol check, interview the applicant, and review the evidence submitted, and then either grant or deny the individual recognition as a refugee. If the person is recognized as a refugee by the UN, the UNHCR will issue them a refugee travel document, provide them with food and shelter at a “camp” abroad, and work with member countries in an attempt to facilitate their resettlement in a third country.

In contrast, an asylum applicant does not apply for recognition as a refugee directly to the United Nations, but rather, applies directly the U.S. government for recognition that s/he is unable or unwilling to return home because of a bona fide fear of persecution. An asylum applicant, thus, is in the United States at the time of application for status. Typically such applicants entered the U.S. on some kind of non-immigrant status and decided to seek asylum status upon or after arrival here.
The evidence required for an asylum applicant is much more extensive and such applications have a greater chance of denial. Individuals who are unable to establish a bona fide fear of persecution, but who would be tortured if they are returned to a specific country, may apply for consideration under the United Nations Conventions regarding torture, which the U.S. signed in 1994.

Individuals seeking asylum generally apply at the port of entry at the time they enter the United States. Generally, the law requires that an application for asylum be filed within one year of your arrival. Individuals, who are in the United States in some other non-immigrant visa category like students and exchange visitors, may apply later than one year only if conditions in their home country have changed since they arrived in the United States, or if extraordinary circumstance prevented the applicant from filing within the one year period.


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