The most common ways that people access humanitarian protection in the United States is either through the refugee resettlement program or seeking asylum.
Both refugees and asylum seekers must meet the same definition of fleeing persecution or having a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, national origin, religion, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The difference lies in their path to gaining protection in the United States.
Refugees are unable to return to their home country after fleeing and seeking asylum in another country. They apply for refugee status through the UNHCR and then are selected for resettlement. Refugees do not get to choose the country where they will be resettled, but are more likely to be resettled in the U.S. if they already have family members living here.
The number of refugees admitted into the U.S. has varied widely since the modern resettlement system was established. The average annual admissions since 1980 have been 73,285 people per year with the highest number of arrivals in the early 80s at over 200,000 people and the lowest in 2021 with only 11,411 refugees resettled.
Asylum seekers are also fleeing persecution in their home country, but they apply for asylum either at the border or from within the United States. Seeking asylum can only be done when someone is physically in the U.S. or at a port of entry.
Once in the U.S., someone is allowed to apply for asylum regardless of their immigration status. Therefore, it is possible for someone to cross the border illegally, but then be allowed to stay in the country legally to pursue their claim, often because they have demonstrated a credible fear of persecution if they are deported.
The recent asylum rule from the Biden administration adds extra layers, as it implements new barriers that would make many people ineligible for asylum if they cross the border between ports of entry. There have already been legal challenges to this rule, and it remains to be seen how the courts will interpret this new way of applying immigration law.
In recent years, we have seen increasing numbers of people seeking humanitarian protection who have arrived using humanitarian parole rather than refugee admissions or the asylum application process, such as Afghan evacuees and Ukrainians.
This has been a faster way to grant legal authorization for entry to the U.S., but it’s important to note that humanitarian parole is a temporary protection and does not grant a pathway to permanent residency.
There’s a prevalent myth that it’s easy to immigrate to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons, but it’s not as simple as it may seem. The parameters around who qualifies for refugee or asylee status are extremely narrow, and current backlogs in both the refugee pipeline and asylum system make everything slower and more difficult. There are many people whose lives are truly in danger, but who have no current legal path to receive permanent refuge in the United States.