The major defining component of what makes one a refugee and what makes one an asylee is the place where one applies for refugee status. Refugees apply for and obtain such status outside of the United States; asylees apply for and obtain status while in the U.S.
Both asylees and refugees must prove that, as per the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Both refugees and asylees, upon receiving their status, are eligible to work in the United States and apply for lawful permanent residence after living in the country for a year. Refugees, upon arrival in the United States, may work right away, whereas asylees must wait 150 days while their application is being processed.
The annual ceiling for refugees resettled in the United States was set by the president at 80,000 people in 2008, according to the Migration Information Source. Upwards of 60,000 refugees were admitted into the country through the resettlement program that year, 20,000 less than the limit. There were nearly 23,000 people granted asylum in 2008. People from Burma, Iraq and Bhutan accounted for most of the refugees in 2008, whereas people from China, Colombia and Haiti made up the largest population being granted asylum.
Because there is a cap on the number of refugees the U.S. admits, and there is no such cap on the number of asylees who can be admitted, one should apply for refugee status if possible in the non-U.S. country, but if that cannot happen, asylum is a viable option as well. One should apply for asylee status if there are extenuating circumstances or if one did not know to apply earlier. Though the screening processes are different and take a lot of time, there are more restrictions for those applying for asylum, such as the 10,000 asylees allowed to become citizens versus the lack of a cap for refugees to become citizens.
According to Dale Buscher, protection program director for the Women’s Refugee Commission, anyone who flees a country is identified as a de facto asylee until granted refugee status. The process of becoming a refugee in the United States involves going through the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Additionally, asylee applicants cannot have violated restrictions established by the Department of Justice such as having “firmly resettled in another country prior to arriving in the United States” and having “ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Buscher noted that many asylees seek such status upon landing at a U.S. airport. If they do not fit the criteria, they may be sent back to their country of origin. Asylees have one year from their date of arrival in the United States to apply for status.