Understanding the Difference Between a Refugee and an Asylee

Refugee status and asylum status are often used interchangeably in immigration-related discussions, mainly because the people making these applications are doing on the basis of the probability of being subjected to persecution based at least one of the five protected grounds (Race, Religion, Nationality, Membership in a particular social group, political opinion). Both refugees and asylees are also required to demonstrate that they qualify for protection in the United States.

Despite this similarity, there is a key difference between the two categories. Refugees request protection while outside of the U.S., and if permission is received, they enter the country. Asylees apply for the same protection while on U.S. soil.

Claiming Persecution

For purposes of refugee or asylum status in the United States, a persecution claim refers to serious threats or actual inflicting of physical, psychological, or economic harm by the claimant’s home government or groups that defy governmental control. The five enumerated grounds on which someone may qualify for refugee status or asylum are:

  • Race: Racial persecution can occur when someone is at risk of harm because of their perceived membership in a racial group. It also happens when their country’s laws or social norms foster a climate of racial discrimination that violates their human rights or dignity.
  • Religion: A person may claim religious persecution if their country’s laws impose restrictions on their religious freedom, such as forbidding public worship, or if they have been punished individually for supposedly failing to comply with the prevailing religious norms.
  • Particular Social Group: A particular social group shares a common characteristic so integral to their identities that they can’t change it. Claimants may have been born with this characteristic (e.g. gender) or it could be a shared experience such as a tribe or occupational group. In recent years women who are subjected to gender-based maltreatment back home have claimed asylum and refugee status on these grounds.
  • Political Opinion: People may claim persecution on the basis of actual or imputed political opinions that their government regards harshly. For example, the U.S. government currently holds that anyone forced to have an abortion or sterilization in China because of the country’s single child policy is considered to have a political opinion for asylum purposes.  
  • Nationality: Nationality is a broad term that can include persecution of ethnic and linguistic groups.

Applying for Refugee Status

Those intending to apply for refugee status must meet certain criteria. They must not have been offered citizenship or resident status in another country, and cannot be a close relative of an American citizen or landed immigrant. (In this instance, they must apply for an immigrant visa instead.)

To apply, prospective refugees must contact the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or a foreign office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Once their application is approved, they and their immediate family members (spouse and unmarried children under 21) may remain in the United States indefinitely. During their first months in the country, they receive government support and a work permit, and after one year they can apply for permanent resident status. Four years later, they are eligible for American citizenship.

Applying for Asylee Status

The process of applying for asylee status depends on whether the applicant is already in the country or at a United States point of entry. Those who are already in the U.S. have up to a year to apply and submit proof that their fears of persecution in their home country are credible. If they apply at a U.S. point of entry, such as an airport, they are taken into custody pending a ‘credible fear’ hearing with a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer. If the officer is convinced that their concerns are credible, the applicant will be scheduled to appear before an immigration judge and explain why they qualify for asylum in the United States.

If their application is approved, asylees can apply for a work permit and remain in the U.S. indefinitely. Like refugees, they can also apply for a green card after one year and, four years after that, apply for U.S. citizenship.

If you intend to seek protection in the U.S. by applying for refugee or asylum status, call Rotella & Hernandez today at (786) 571-8472 for our Miami office, or (561) 571-0872 for our West Palm Beach office. We offer comprehensive and experience-driven legal advice on a wide variety of immigration matters and are glad to help in your case.

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