Asylum 101: Different Pathways Asylum-Seekers, Refugees Take To Reach The US
Last year, more refugees were resettled in San Diego County than in any other region. But there is another group also coming to San Diego for protection. Those are asylum-seekers. While fewer arrive each year compared to refugees, local advocates say they come for the same reasons: fear of persecution or actual persecution in their home countries because of their race, religion, nationality, politics or membership in a social group.
What is different is the process.
“Refugees get legal status abroad, so when they enter the country, they already are deemed a refugee," said San Diego immigration lawyer Tammy Lin, who spent nine years working at a resettlement agency.
In contrast, asylum-seekers begin their process either at the U.S. border or from within the U.S.
Refugees may be fleeing major conflicts that can get the attention of other countries and international agencies. Organizations support camps overseas that provide some — but not all — refugees with food, shelter and additional assistance, although living conditions can be harsh.
Simon Henshaw, acting assistant secretary of the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration explained for refugees, the circumstances can be dire.
“The support the United States sends to millions of displaced people overseas keeps them from starvation and death. Even with assistance refugees live in difficult situations often without jobs or education awaiting the day they can safely return home," he said in a statement.
Once refugees are resettled in the U.S., there is a support system in place for them, which can include public services such as cash assistance, medical care and food stamps, or programs provided by resettlement agencies, such as English classes.
The difference for asylum-seekers
Lin said asylum-seekers may not have the option of a camp while they are still overseas, because they may be fleeing individual conflicts. She said this is often the case with her clients, many of whom reside in City Heights.
“I have LGBT cases from the former Soviet Union. From the African continent, a client that has an arrest warrant for just being gay. I have folks that were politically active,” she said.
Asylum: Defensive vs. Affirmative
The shorter pathway, which Lin estimates to take two years, is known as the defensive process. Asylum-seekers are detained at a port of entry, given a credible fear interview and then given a date for an immigration court hearing where their fate is decided by a judge. Those who do not pass the credible fear interview or are denied asylum by the court are deported. They may appeal the decision, but Lin said these determinations are rarely overturned.
The lengthier pathway, known as the affirmative process, is available only to those who legally entered the country, such as on a visa, but are later unable to return home because of changes in their home country. They apply to the regional asylum office and wait for an interview. The backlog in Southern California is so great, officers are only now interviewing applicants who filed back in 2011. If their claim is denied, they still have the option to file through the defensive process.
One option for them is to reach the U.S. first and then file for asylum.
Kathi Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit Survivors of Torture International, said for many asylum-seekers, that process begins at our border.
“And they may say things once they arrive to our port of entry and say something along the lines of ‘it’s not safe for me to go home.’ ‘If I go home, I’m going to be killed.’ ‘This happened to me or it happened to my family,’ and they described some terrible things that occurred,” said Anderson, who was also the past president of the San Diego Refugee Forum.
Asylum-seekers can wait two to five years until their claim is adjudicated. Meanwhile they can be paroled into the U.S., where they have to support themselves, although they must wait six months before obtaining a work permit.
Anderson said during this waiting period, asylum-seekers are not entitled to the same support system as refugees.
“The structures that we have in place are set up beautifully for refugee resettlement agencies. Comparable structures are not in place for the asylum-seekers,” she said.
While this means government agencies are not spending taxpayer dollars on applicants while their claims are pending, Lin says this leaves asylum-seekers with few options.
“They have nonprofits that may have local programs that maybe they’re eligible for, but in terms of any government assistance they don’t qualify. Also for a lot of nonprofits, it depends whether they look at legal status,” she said. “For asylum-seekers, they’re in this strange limbo, they’re not illegal but they’re not legal because they’re waiting for something. They’re just pending.”
"Refugees are eligible for public assistance benefits provided by the County of San Diego, including specific Refugee Employment Services funded through the Office of Refugee Resettlement in an effort to help them gain employment and become self-sufficient as quickly as possible. Asylum seekers are not entitled to any public assistance benefits; however should they be granted asylum, they are then eligible for the same benefits as a refugee."
-- Maggie Fenn, San Diego County Department of Human and Health Services
However, the Trump Administration wants to limit the policy of releasing asylum-seekers as they wait for their day in court. In an executive order, the president declared, “It is the policy of the executive branch to end the abuse of parole and asylum provisions currently used to prevent the lawful removal of removable aliens.”
Terence Shigg, president of the local chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, said immigration officials have since prioritized the detention of single adults who seek asylum at the border, depending on the availability of beds. He said families are still being paroled into the U.S. after a few days.
However, he added, for the last two years he has fielded concerns from border agents that asylum fraud is a growing problem.
“Many of the unsubstantiated claims that we hear on a regular basis by 'ASYLUM SEEKERS' is not what the asylum system was set up for,” Shigg wrote in an email.
Border agents are not responsible for validating their claims, but instead document their stories and transfer individuals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said.
Meanwhile, Trump’s attempts to limit refugee resettlement have so far been unsuccessful. His plans to temporarily halt the program are caught up in court.