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What does it mean to seek asylum or flee as a refugee?

Most refugees and political asylum seekers are leaving their home countries due to fear of violence. As the terms themselves imply, they are seeking refuge or asylum. Many come to the U.S. to escape war or to seek freedom from oppression, such as fear of arrest for expressing (or just having) one's beliefs, or speaking out against tyranny and corruption.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) define a refugee as someone who is outside of his or her homeland, and has been persecuted in his or her homeland, or has a well-founded fear of persecution there on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Refugees are often displaced from their home countries due to war, military action, armed fighting, and civil strife.

Political asylum is similar, but applies when someone is already in the United States. Political asylum may protect an individual from removal to a country of feared persecution.

What is required to qualify as a refugee in the U.S.?

To qualify for refugee status in the United States, a person fleeing persecution, violence, or oppression will need to apply before they enter the U.S. and meet certain requirements. These requirements include:

  • Referral from the The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) or a U.S. Embassy, or belonging to a specified group with special characteristics in certain countries. Check the current list of priority groups for more information.
  • Not being firmly resettled in another country already. This is defined by whether or not you have been offered resident status or citizenship in that country.
  • Not being an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen or a special immigrant. If a person has an immediate relative that is a U.S. citizen or special immigrant, they may apply for an immigrant visa instead.

If a person meets the criteria above, the following steps outline the process to apply for refugee status in the United States:

  1. Contact the UNHCR or an international non-profit volunteer agency. If unable to reach either of these, contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate. Someone from one of these organizations will help to determine whether the eligibility requirements are met to apply to be a refugee in the U.S..
  2. Next, an I-590 form may need to be completed. When completed, the USCIS will evaluate these forms and conduct an interview to decide whether a person qualifies for refugee status in the United States. There is no application fee for refugee status.
  3. If refugee status in the United States is approved, that person and their immediate family members (spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21) will be granted refugee status. If the family members are not present at the time of the interview, they will need to file a Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition, Form I-730.

To start the process, or to get assistance, contact the UNHCR.

How to qualify for political asylum in the U.S.?

Individuals already in the United States, or those at a port of entry, who want to be protected from being removed to a country of feared persecution may apply for political asylum in the United States.

There are fewer qualifications to apply for asylum than for refugee status. Unless there are extraordinary circumstances, asylum seekers are required to apply for asylum within one year of entering into the United States. This one year application deadline may be waived in certain circumstances, such as:

  • Changed circumstances or conditions in the country of origin, or last residence.
  • When someone who is included as a dependent on a family member's asylum application reaches age 21, or that family relationship ends due to divorce or death.
  • Serious illness, death of an immediate family member, or mental, physical, or legal disability.
  • Encountering difficulties with the application or legal process, or due to ineffective representation.

Even when a person qualifies to apply after the deadline, waiting too long to apply may be cause for rejection. USCIS urges applicants to not delay filing their applications.

To apply for political asylum in the United States, complete Form I-589. There is no fee.

For more information about asylum, see the USCIS Welcomes Refugees and Asylees brochure.

If you have more questions about U.S. immigration law, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorney for affordable legal advice, or find an immigration lawyer.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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