I am considering fleeing my home country, because I'm part of a persecuted group here, and I want to apply for refugee status to come to the United States. A friend told me, however, that the refugee application process is lengthy and difficult. He suggested I instead book a flight with a layover in the U.S. and then request asylum at the airport. Would this route be easier for me?
Neither route is easy. Refugee classification is a long process, but you will have access to plenty of support if you are eventually successful.
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 risk being sent back to your home country if you are denied.
To meet the eligibility requirements to become 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. The big difference between the two 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); while in order to apply for asylum, you must be at the U.S. border or already present in the United States.
You cannot simply "apply" to become a refugee—you must first get a referral. A referral from 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 still not guaranteed that you will be given refugee status.
Next is the refugee application process, which can also be difficult. The good news is that after you are classified as a refugee, you will be matched with agencies that can give you support. 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 all these benefits.
If you do not want to go through this lengthy refugee referral process, see whether you can obtain a valid tourist visa to enter the United States. That will allow you to wait until after you have passed U.S. Customs and Border Protection and entered the U.S. to apply for asylum, which you will be able to do by mail. You should submit your asylum application within one year of your arrival (or ideally, before your tourist visa expires).
If you decide to go this route, you must foot the bill for your travel to the U.S. 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 (with the exact timing dependent on whether your case gets delayed through no fault on your part.
If you are approved for asylum, you can stay in the U.S.; but if you are denied, you will be placed into removal proceedings where you will have to present a convincing 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.
If you cannot get a U.S. visa and you request asylum at an entry port during a layover like your friend suggested, you could be placed into detention. Conditions there are similar to prisons. You will have to wait around for a day or two until you are scheduled for a "credible fear" interview with an asylum officer. If the officer denies your request, you will be sent home immediately. If the officer decides that you indeed fear persecution, you will have less than a week to convince an immigration judge that you are actually eligible for asylum.
For more detailed information about these application processes, see Asylum or Refugee Status: How to Apply.