How to Obtain Protection From a U.S. Embassy or Consulate

Although a U.S. embassy or consulate cannot process applications for asylum or refugee status, they may be able to offer other forms of protection.

By , Attorney · Florida Coastal School of Law

If you are in danger in your home country but are unable to leave (for example, you have been placed under house arrest by your government), you might wonder whether you can obtain the protection of the U.S. government. Entering a U.S. embassy or consulate would seem like a logical thing to attempt. This article describes the forms of protection that might (or might not) be available to you.

Such forms of protection are available only in extreme or exceptional circumstances.

You Cannot Apply for Asylum at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate

Asylum is a form of legal protection available to certain people who cannot or would not feel safe if they tried to live in their home country, because of past persecution or the danger of future persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Unfortunately, U.S. embassies and consulates cannot process requests for this form of protection. That's because, under U.S. law, asylum seekers can apply only if they are physically present in the United States (or at least at a U.S. border or other point of entry).

There is a common misconception that U.S. embassies and consulates are basically the same as U.S. soil. It is true that international law protects national embassies and consulates from being destroyed, entered, or searched (without permission) by the government of the country where they are located (the host country).

However, this does not give those embassies or consulates the full status of being part of their home nation's territory. Therefore, U.S. law does not consider asylum seekers at U.S. embassies and consulates to be "physically present in the United States" (or at a U.S. border or point of entry).

This does not mean that embassy personnel cannot offer any help at all to people who are in danger and seek their protection. In extreme or exceptional circumstances, U.S. embassies and consulates can offer alternative forms of protection, including (in most countries) temporary refuge, a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, or a request for parole to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

How to Obtain Temporary Refuge at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate

Temporary refuge is a form of short-term protection from physical danger when the danger is both immediate (for example, a person is being pursued by a mob) and exceptionally grave (most often when there is a risk of possible death or serious bodily injury). It is also available to people who are in immediate danger of persecution based on the traditional grounds for asylum (described above).

In practice, this option tends to apply to high-profile figures, but it can be open to a few others as well. It provides temporary shelter by allowing people who need protection to enter and stay in the embassy or consulate after closing hours, at least until the danger ceases or the person chooses to leave. This option does not involve getting any help leaving the host country.

If you believe you might need temporary refuge, keep in mind that (depending on your home country's relations with the United States) staying at a U.S. embassy or consulate could actually attract negative attention to both you and embassy personnel, and put you at greater risk in the near future.

How to Obtain a Referral to the U.S. Refugees Admissions Program from a U.S. Embassy or Consulate

You might be eligible for an embassy or consulate referral to the U.S. Refugees Admissions Program, which is basically a request by the embassy or consulate that another U.S. government agency (the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or DHS) examine you to decide whether you should be allowed to enter the United States as a refugee (a form of long-term protection similar to asylum status).

This option might be available to high-profile figures or other people personally known by U.S. diplomats. However, even if you meet this condition, you might still need a personal referral not just from any diplomat but from the ambassador, simply because you are still in your home country.

Moreover, obtaining this referral would be only the beginning of your refugee application, which is likely to require further processing with a formal interview at another location (involving a DHS official), and the assistance of a nongovernmental organization once you arrive in the United States.

Nevertheless, if you obtain refugee status, you should also be able to receive at least partial assistance (from the International Migration Organization) in leaving your country.

How to Obtain Parole to the U.S. With Help From a U.S. Embassy or Consulate

If neither of the two forms of protection above (or any other route to the United States) seems appropriate in your case, you could still be considered for a middle option called "parole." Parole is a measure of last resort that allows people who are not admissible in the United States to enter and stay in the country for a fixed but sometimes renewable period of time, either for urgent humanitarian reasons (humanitarian parole), or for a "significant public benefit" to the United States (SPB parole).

Humanitarian parole might be available in urgent medical, family, and comparable cases. SPB parole might be available to persons of interest to U.S. law enforcement or national security (for example, people with information that the U.S. government could use to prosecute a criminal or prevent a terrorist attack).

In either case, a U.S. embassy or consulate may request parole on your behalf to DHS—you cannot do so directly on your own.

People who obtain parole are unlikely to receive any financial or other assistance from the U.S. government in leaving their country or in living in the United States. They are required to leave the U.S. promptly as soon as the reason for their parole ceases to exist (even if this happens before the end of their official parole period).

Look Into Alternative Forms of Protection

Even if you might qualify for temporary refuge, refugee status, or parole, you should keep in mind that your request for protection could indirectly disqualify you from obtaining a nonimmigrant visa to the United States. Therefore, if you believe you also qualify for such a visa, and have sufficient opportunity to apply for one, you might consider this route first.

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