Every year, thousands of individuals from all around the world seek to enter the United States for protection from persecution for their religious beliefs, human rights stances, and many other positions that put them at risk of violence or imprisonment. One of the most high-profile reasons that someone might apply for refuge is that they face persecution for their political beliefs or actions in their home country.

However, applying for protection is sometimes a bureaucratic minefield that confuses many, and often takes the expertise of a legal expert to navigate. Here is a brief guide to how the political refugee process works.

Who Decides who gets Political Refugee Status?

For those seeking protection, you need to apply for official refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees. This is the arm of the U.N. that deals exclusively with such issues. The Commissioner’s office will then conduct a background check and extensive search to determine the applicant’s eligibility. 

This process may include interviews either in person or via electronic communication, and may either approve or deny their refugee status. Those seeking to enter the United States as a political refugee can go to any embassy in either their home country or another host country if they have fled their own. 

If the U.N. has approved refugee status, the employees at the embassy will review their eligibility and decide whether or not to start the resettlement process. If approved, they contact the State Department to begin getting travel documents and other necessary paperwork in place to transfer the person or persons to the United States.

What are the Requirements for Political Refugee Status?

To be eligible for political refugee status in the U.S., the person must show that they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution. This will be analyzed according to the famous Supreme Court case INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca from 1987. To meet this standard, the person needs to show that they face persecution and/or danger in their home country due to their political beliefs or membership of a political group. This can be through threats of violence, but it does not always have to be. Every case will be examined based on circumstances like the country of origin and many other factors.

Threats and past examples of persecution are a good way to prove this element. However, as long as the applicant can show that a reasonable person would fear for their safety or freedom under the same circumstances, they can fulfill this requirement. A good example is showing that the person was imprisoned for their political statements or affiliations. Additionally, they may provide evidence of persecution can be proven through news stories, video, photographs, and witness testimony.

Does the Persecution Need to Come from the Government?

Not necessarily. A person can still seek political refugee status even if the persecution is not being done by the government or organizations under government control like military, police, or other forces. Persecution can come from groups like paramilitary organizations, guerilla and rebel groups, and other groups with power and influence in their country. As long as they can meet the requirements set by U.S. law, they can still be eligible for refugee status. 

I’ve Heard of Asylum Claims, is Political Refugee Status the Same Thing?

Not exactly. They do share some similarities, but each is its own separate immigration route. A political refugee applies for their status while they are outside the United States for safe passage into the country. Asylum refers to someone who has already entered the United States (or attempted to through a port of entry) and is filing an application to stay. 

There are certain protections and programs that a refugee has access to that an asylum seeker does not. These include assistance for living and medical expenses until the refugee can get their financial bearing in their new country. 

How Many Political Refugees can Enter the United States?

There are many different ways that a foreign national can enter the United States, and many of these categories have a quota or a cap on how many can enter each year. These numbers are determined every year by the President with Congressional consultation, as per the Immigration and Nationality Act. This means that the number of refugees can vary widely from year to year according to the shifting political winds. For example, in 2010 the refugee cap (all types) was 80,000, while in 2018 it was only 45,000. 

Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Political Refugee Legal Issues?

Immigration law in the United States is complicated, and policy can shift depending on who is making the decisions at that moment. As a result, it is a good idea to speak with an experienced immigration attorney to explain the process. They can review any potential issues with your case to give you or your family member/loved one the best shot at success.