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Asylum and Refugees Overview

Asylum seekers and refugees can gain legal residency status in the United States if they fulfill certain requirements under immigration law. The main differences between the two forms of relief are:

  • Asylum seekers are already on U.S. soil, while refugees are outside of the United States; and
  • Refugees seek help from the United Nations, while asylum applicants submit their petition to the U.S. government.

Although federal laws and regulations govern the asylum and refugee process, each request is determined on a case-by-case basis, meaning that an individual's application as presented to an immigration law officer is the most crucial factor in obtaining the relief sought -- asylum or refugee status. Following is a discussion of asylum and refugee status under immigration law.


Asylum is a type of protection that allows individuals who are already in the United States to remain here. In order to obtain asylum, an applicant must demonstrate to the United States government that he or she fears persecution in their native country based upon one or more of the following:

  • Race,
  • Religion,
  • Nationality,
  • Membership in a social group, or
  • Political opinion.

Asylum Procedure and Limitations

An individual seeking asylum applies directly to the United States government. U.S. law generally requires that an application for asylum be filed within one year of the person's arrival in the United States, although there are very limited exceptions. The procedure and evidence that is required in an asylum application is significantly more complex than for individuals seeking refugee status before the U.N. In addition, there are dangers of applicants being held in detention while their request is being considered, if they have entered the United States illegally. Finally, asylum applicants cannot seek employment authorization at the same time they apply for asylum. They need to wait for an initial 150 days prior to application.

Eligibility of Family Members

In addition to the asylum applicant him- or herself, immediate family members may also be eligible for asylum status, and will receive all of the benefits enjoyed by the applicant, provided that those family members were named in the asylum application. Family members do not need to be present in the United States when the application is filed.

Permanent Residency Status

Individuals granted asylum may seek permanent residency status (an immigrant visa or "green card") one year after receiving asylum status.

Refugee Status

Refugee status is very similar to asylum, except that the person seeing refugee status is outside of the United States. Usually, a person seeking refugee status applies directly to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees in an effort to receive refugee recognition. The United Nations will run an Interpol (International Police Organization) check, interview the applicant, review the evidence, and then grant or deny recognition as a refugee. If refugee status is granted, the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees will grant the applicant a refugee travel document and will work with a number of countries to facilitate the applicant's resettlement.

If the refugee wishes to resettle in the United States, the U.N. will assist the applicant, and the U.S. government will review the refugee status claim before proceeding.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help you with asylum-related issues.

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