Refugee v. Asylee: What is the Difference?
July 6, 2017 at 12:00 AM
by Law Offices of Lara Wagner LLC

Last week, the Supreme Court reinstated portions of President Trump's travel ban which, amongst other things, halts the resettlement of refugees for 120 days. With this ban going into effect, it's important to understand the difference between a refugee and an asylee.

Colloquially, the terms refugee and asylee are used almost interchangeably. This makes sense, as both refer to individuals who have fled their home countries due to a fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, such as gender or sexual orientation. But the terms have distinct meanings within the US legal system.

Refugees are individuals who apply for their status outside the United States through a process known as Refugee Resettlement. Generally, these individuals have already fled their home countries for a second country, where they have been processed by the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and designated as refugees. If UNHCR determines that there is no possibility of a refugee returning to his or her home country, or remaining in the second country, then they will refer them to a third country, like the United States, for resettlement. A referral does not mean that the individual will be resettled in the US. Instead, the individual still must apply for resettlement. This application includes a rigorous set of background, security, and medical checks, as well as an interview. Once an applicant passes all of these checks, they will be assigned to a resettlement agency. This agency will help the applicant adapt to live in the United States, by helping them find a home, helping their children enroll in school, helping them find a job, and helping them enroll in ESL classes. The US government contracts with 9 refugee resettlement agencies. World Relief, Refugee One, Heartland Alliance, and Catholic Charites are the primary contractors in Illinois.

Asylees, on the other hand, are individuals who apply for their status from within the United States. Some asylum-seekers enter the United States lawfully and then choose to apply for asylum rather than return to countries where they fear harm. These individuals file an application with US Citizenship and Immigration Services, complete a background check, and then attend an interview with an asylum officer. If the asylum officer chooses not to grant their application they are, generally, given the opportunity to apply again before an immigration judge. Other asylum-seekers arrive at our ports of entry without valid visas, where they express their fear of return. If this fear is found credible by an asylum officer, the individual will be given the opportunity to apply for asylum before an immigration judge. However, they may be held in immigration detention during the duration of the proceedings. This can re-traumatize already traumatized individuals and make it more difficult for them to present their claims. Lack of representation can also make it difficult. Because immigration proceedings are civil, administrative proceedings there is no right to counsel and many individuals are forced to represent themselves. Many cities, like Chicago, have tried to combat this problem by creating funds to provide representatives to immigrants.

The Law Offices of Lara Wagner represents asylum-seekers. Anyone interested in applying can contact us.