People may obtain either refugee status or asylum as protection from persecution, or fear of future persecution, only on account of specific factors:
- Membership in a particular social group; or
- Political opinion.
A refugee is a non-citizen whose fear is recognized as one of “special humanitarian concern” to the United States. This status protects people who flee their homelands, fearing serious harm should they be forced to return. Refugees submit their petitions from outside U.S. borders. The refugee status will not apply, though, to people already safely settled in another country.
No one can make a legal claim to refugee status if that person somehow participated in persecution of anyone else on account of the factors listed above.
Family abroad may be able to join a refugee already in the United States. For spouses and unmarried minors (under 21), the U.S. government offers Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition.
Asylum seekers are refugees, except that they are already present in the United States when they submit their petition for legal protection. In some cases, they declare their intention at a U.S. port of entry. But they do not need to enter with all documents in order. Some will not have accomplished the legal formalities normally expected of entrants, because of the very fact that they are fleeing another government. Regardless of the country they have left, they are entitled to petition for asylum.
The application must be done using Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal. Applicants may live in the United States during the application process, but they must file within a year of coming into the United States. There is no charge to apply.
Some asylum seekers have immediate family members who need protection just as some refugees do. These individuals may be listed on the application, or added before the final decision on the case.