What's the difference between asylum and refugee status under U.S. immigration laws -- that is, who should seek asylum status, and who should seek refugee status? It's simply a matter of where you are when you apply. People outside of the United States must apply for refugee status. People who have already made it to the United States border or the interior (perhaps by using a visa or by entering illegally) can apply for asylum status.
Once granted, both statuses allow you to stay in the United States indefinitely. Asylees and refugees are given permission to work and are allowed to apply for a green card (within one year of either entering the United States as a refugee or being approved for asylum).
Not everyone qualifies for asylum or refugee status. Persecution must be connected to one of five grounds -- race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion. You must meet some strict requirements. In particular, you must show two things:
- You are unable or unwilling to return to your home country because you have been persecuted there in the past or have a well-founded fear that you will be persecuted if you go back.
- The reason you have been (or will be) persecuted is connected to one of five things: your race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or your political opinion.
Historically, for example, the need for asylum or refugee status has been recognized in situations where a foreign government has:
- imprisoned and tortured political dissidents or supposed undesirables
- fired on protesters
- committed genocide against a certain race
- made sure that members of a certain religion were left out of the political process,
- and much more.
In recent years, the U.S. government has recognized persecution based on gender (usually based on the "particular social group" category). This has allowed some women to gain asylum based on having undergone (or fearing they'll be forced to undergo) cultural practices such as female genital cutting, forced marriage, or domestic violence.
Determining eligibility and applying for asylum or refugee status isn't easy. Even if you think you're eligible for asylum or refugee protection in the United States -- that is, you've experienced persecution based on one of the five grounds -- you can still be barred from receiving asylum or refugee status. Start by talking with an experienced attorney.