Is It Easier to Come to the U.S. and Apply for Asylum or Apply for Refugee Status From Abroad?

Each type of application process in seeking U.S. refugee or asylee status has its advantages and disadvantages, discussed here.

By , Attorney · Temple University Beasley School of Law

If you are considering fleeing your home country because you're part of a persecuted group there, and want to apply for refugee status to come to the United States, you might have read that the refugee application process is lengthy and difficult. That's true! You might also wonder whether you'd be better off booking a flight to the U.S., then requesting asylum at the airport or afterward. Would such a strategy be easier or more effective?

Unfortunately, there is no 'easy' way to gain refugee status, asylum, or other humanitarian protection in the United States. But it's worth understanding and considering the possibilities, as this article discusses.

What's the Difference Between Applying to Be a Refugee and Applying for Asylum in the U.S.?

To meet the eligibility requirements to become either an asylee or refugee, you must be unwilling to return to your country of origin due to a well-founded fear that you will be persecuted based on your race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. But the similarities end there.

The big difference between refugee and asylee statuses is as follows:

  • In order to request refugee status, you must have left your home country (except in special circumstances such as a disaster or war) and must apply through the United Nations, but not directly to the United States.
  • In order to apply for asylum in the U.S., you must not only have left your country, but be at the U.S. border or already present in the United States.

In other words, it's a difference of both location and application process. Below is a quick overview; for more detailed information about these application processes, see Asylum or Refugee Status: How to Apply. and How to Prepare and Submit a Refugee Application to the U.S.

Overview of the Refugee Application Process

Before attempting to "apply" to become a refugee, you must get a referral. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCHR) is your best bet for getting into the U.S. Resettlement Program (USRAP), but even then only around 1% of cases are ordinarily referred for resettlement in a third country such as the United States.

If you are referred to USRAP, it is not guaranteed that you will be given refugee status, much less be assigned to the United States. You will need to go through a series of interviews, and present any relevant documents that you have, showing your identity, the persecution you experienced, and more. Fortunately, the various agencies set up to handle this process understand that you might have left your country with little, and will try to help you prepare your story and gather relevant documents. But they could place you anywhere in the world (though a U.S. assignment is more likely if you already have family here).

Overview of the U.S. Asylum Application Process

If you can enter the United States of your own accord, such as by obtaining a valid tourist visa or even crossing the border unlawfully, you'll be able to apply for asylum on your own initiative, either at the border or airport, or by mail. The Immigration and Nationality Act specifies that foreign-born people can apply for asylum if "physically present in the United States," "irrespective of" their immigration status." (See I.N.A. Section 208(a).)

This covers both people who made illegal entries and those who overstayed visas; though you should submit your asylum application within one year of arrival (or ideally before your visa, if any, expires).

If you decide to travel to the U.S. on your own, you must foot the bill for transportation and find your own place to stay, and perhaps pay a lawyer to assist you in preparing a persuasive, complete application. You will not be able to legally work in the U.S. for some time after submitting your application (the exact timing depends on whether your case gets delayed for a reason that wasn't your fault.

If you are approved for asylum, you can stay in the U.S.; but if you are denied, you and anyone named on your application as an accompanying family member will be placed into removal proceedings where you will have to present a convincing asylum case in Immigration Court. At this point, the process can be overwhelming and time-consuming, and will likely require the assistance of an experienced attorney.

Another option, if you cannot get a U.S. visa or entry document, is to request asylum at the U.S. border or at an entry port during a flight layover. However, this comes with a great risk that you could be placed into detention or denied based on having passed through a safe third country. For details, see Requesting Asylum at U.S. Border? What to Expect at Credible Fear Interview.

Which Offers More Up-Front Support: A Refugee or Asylum Application?

Refugee classification is a long process, but you will have access to plenty of support if you are eventually successful. You will be matched with agencies that can give you support, including arranging for your transportation to the United States, and finding you a place to stay at first. Once you have arrived in the U.S., they will line you up with low-cost housing, employment options, access to English language classes, and a cultural orientation.

Asylees do not receive any of these benefits ahead of time. Applying for asylum after you have arrived in the U.S. might get you to the country faster, but you must have the financial means to arrange transport, and you risk being sent back to your home country if you are denied. Only after approval do you start to receive significant support, as described in Rights and Available Benefits After a Grant of Asylum.

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