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Refugees and Asylees in the U.S.

The U.S. immigration system defines two separate pathways for humanitarian relief. Refugees are those that apply for admission into the United States and undergo intensive screening while still in their home counties. Asylum-seekers are those that arrive in the United States, often on temporary visas, and subsequently apply for asylum or claim asylum during removal proceedings. Both processes grant people fleeing persecution in their home countries legal status in the United States.

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  1. The legal basis for humanitarian admissions to the United States began with the Refugee Act of 1980. It defines a refugee as a person outside his or her country of nationality and unable or unwilling to return due to “a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”

  2. An asylee is someone who fits the definition of a refugee but is already in the United States or seeking admission at a port of entry.

  3. The number of refugees that the United States will accept each year is set by the president in consultation with Congress. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 the legal limit was 70,000 and the countries that saw the largest numbers of refugees admitted to the United States were Burma (18,386), Iraq (12,676), and Somalia (8,858).

  4. A refugee must apply while outside of the United States and is referred to the Refugee Admissions Program via Resettlement Support Centers administered by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the Department of State. Referrals are made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or a U.S. Embassy.

  5. Refugees who are referred undergo an intensive screening process. The Department of Homeland Security conducts a full background check, the Department of State screens names through its Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS) database, the FBI and National Counterterrorism Center perform the highest level of security screenings, and all refugees undergo an in person interview with a DHS officer. The entire process takes between 12 and 18 months.

  6. Once admitted to the United States, a refugee receives initial medical and cash assistance from the Office of Refugee Resettlement via contracted refugee resettlement agencies that assist with finding receiving communities, housing, jobs and other transition assistance. The State Department works with resettlement agencies and state government refugee coordinators when arranging placement. However, the federal government ultimately decides the location based on where refugees have family members and which resettlement agencies have resources available.

  7. While refugees are processed by the Department of State, the asylum process is administered through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or the immigration courts.

  8. Asylum can be sought through an affirmative or a defensive process. In the affirmative asylum process, an asylum seeker voluntarily submits a petition to USCIS. Defensive asylum processing occurs when an individual has been apprehended in the United States or at the border and has been put in removal proceedings and makes an asylum claim in lieu of removal.

  9. In FY 2014, 6,003 people were granted asylum affirmatively and 2,772 were granted asylum defensively.

  10. The top three nationalities for asylees in FY 2014 were China (45.31%), India (4.24%), and Ethiopia (3.68%).

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