Start watching

Tending Nature

Start watching
Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching
Earth Focus

Earth Focus

Start watching

Reporter Roundup

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams.

A Primer on Refugees and Asylum-Seekers, and Why They're Not Illegal Immigrants

Filipino Muslims Remain In Limbo One Year Since The Attack On Marawi
A displaced boy inside the Sarimanok tent city, a temporary shelter, on May 15, 2018 in Marawi, Philippines. With their homes destroyed and their properties looted or burned, thousands of families displaced during the Marawi | Jes Aznar/Getty Images | Jes Aznar/Getty Images
Support Provided By

The arrival in the Southern border of the United States of tens of thousands of children and families from three countries in Central America has been greeted with a variety of emotions and reactions without necessarily fostering a greater understanding of several important realities:

The world is experiencing the most significant refugee crisis since World War II.

One in every 113 people on the planet is now a refugee. Around the world, someone is displaced every three seconds, forced from home by violence, war or persecution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated in their new report released June 19th of this year that 68.5 million people were displaced worldwide. More than half come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. The ongoing civil war in Syria has led 4.9 million Syrians to flee to neighboring countries.  

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 5.4 million of the displaced persons were refugees, 40 million were internally displaced in their own countries and 3.2 million were asylum-seekers.

The Syrian case is the most dire.

The United States in 2015 began to accept more Syrian refugees than ever before, and the Obama administration surpassed its goal of admitting 10,000 Syrians in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2016. A total of 18,007 Syrian refugees were resettled in the U.S. from 2011 to 2016.

By comparison, Canada took in almost 40,000 Syrians from November 2015 to December 2016. Germany has admitted 41,000 displaced Syrians who were living in Syria or a first-asylum country in the region via a humanitarian admissions program.

Syrians were included in a travel ban instituted last year by the United States and their settlement here was slowed to a trickle. By April this year, the number of resettled Syrians in this country was 11 persons.

One refugee crisis is in our backyard. It's real and they aren't coming only to the U.S.

Hundreds of thousands of people have left the Northern Triangle of Central America -a region that includes El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala- in the past few years, and sought asylum elsewhere.

According to UNHCR data, 294,000 people from of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have gone elsewhere to find refuge or request asylum. They're also three of the five countries with the world's highest murder rates. Their asylum rates increased more than sixteenfold from 2011 through the end of 2017. The applicants sought asylum in The United States and various other countries, including México, Belize, Nicaragua, and Panamá.

The majority of the Central Americans arriving at the border of the United States are women, children, and teenagers, although more adult men are escaping with their children as well. They are fleeing from extreme levels of violence caused by a combination of factors, but primarily from extortion, kidnapping and murder committed and threatened by criminal organizations. In 2014, when a big jump occurred in the arrests of children and women at our southern border, the Obama administration called it "a humanitarian situation" but still tried to dissuade people from coming by opening up "family detention centers" to incarcerate them and starting a regional campaign to inform people in those countries of the perils of the trip.

International organizations have been tracking these refugees and finding "a level of suffering experienced by people in the conflict zones where we have been working for decades", said Bertrand Rossier of Doctors without Borders as the organization released a report informed by patient surveys last May.

"Murder, kidnappings, threats, recruitment by non-state armed actors, extortion, sexual violence, and forced disappearance – these are the realities of war and conflicts also faced by people in this region of Central America," said Rossier, head of mission in Mexico for the medical aid group.  

U.S. officials currently are depicting these refugees as criminals and the children as "not-so-innocent." President Donald Trump, during a May 23 roundtable with  media in New York said that the minors “exploited the loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors. He added: “They look so innocent. They’re not innocent."

The current policy of charging everyone that crosses the border of the United States seeking refuge is resulting in thousands of family separations, a sort of punishment for seeking refuge that seeks to deter the flow of refugees and that has no precedent in modern U.S. history.

Refugees and asylum-seekers are very different – under the law and in real life – from "illegal immigration."

Most foreigners who seek permanent residence in the United States are considered immigrants. Usually, their motivation is to improve their lives by finding better-paying jobs, pursuing educational opportunities or reuniting with family members.

The U.S. immigration system leaves many unable to obtain visas or facing decades of waiting for legal status, resulting in significant unauthorized immigration. Recently fewer of the unauthorized immigrants come by sneaking thru borders than overstay after entering with a visa.

Refugees and asylum-seekers are a whole different category of migration. They flee their homelands based on fear of prosecution or death, and they are protected under international law.  

Refugees come to the United States after a formal process that lasts between 18 to 24 months and includes reviews by the State Department and other agencies, in-person interviews, health screenings, and other vetting.

About 3 million refugees have been resettled in the U.S. under a system Congress created in 1980 but yearly refugee admissions vary. Each year the president, in consultation with Congress, determines the numerical ceiling for refugee admissions, with limits broken down by world regions.

President Barack Obama set the ceiling to 85,000 in 2016 and 110,000 in 2017, but at the dawn of the new administration, Trump halted refugee admissions completely – which was blocked by the courts – and reduced the yearly quota to 50,000.

Humanitarian grounds for migration have rarely been popular in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center and polls taken in previous decades, Americans have largely opposed admitting large numbers of refugees from countries suffering war and oppression.

Asylum is a different process that takes place in the United States or when people present themselves at the border. People who apply have to meet the international law definition of a "refugee," which was set by the U.N. in 1951 and in a 1967 protocol: They must demonstrate that they have a "well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion." Congress incorporated this definition into U.S. immigration law in the Refugee Act of 1980.

The number of people seeking asylum varies depending on world events, but the United States grants only a fraction of applicants full asylum benefits, which lead to permanent residency.

In 2016, 20,455 individuals were granted asylum and these are only a minority of the people applying. In the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, over 60,000 people passed their interview to demonstrate a credible fear, which is the first step to asylum, but not all of them will be approved in the end.

This graphic, based on government data and put together by the pro-immigrant nonprofit American Immigration Council, shows that asylum approvals have varied and fell sharply after 9/11.

This graphic, from this report of the Migration Policy Institute, shows who is getting asylum in the United States by nationality:

Editorial Note: This article was updated on June 20, 2018 to include data from the most recent report published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Support Provided By
Read More
Nurse Yvonne Yaory checks on a coronavirus patient who is connected to a ventilator. | Heidi de Marco/California Healthline

No More ICU Beds at the Main Public Hospital in the Nation’s Largest County as COVID Surges

As COVID patients have flooded into LAC+USC in recent weeks, they’ve put an immense strain on its ICU capacity and staff — especially since non-COVID patients, with gunshot wounds, drug overdoses, heart attacks and strokes, also need intensive care.
Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Your No-Panic Guide to the COVID-19 Vaccine: Is It Safe, and When Can I Get It?

Here's what we know about the COVID-19 vaccines and how they are being distributed in L.A. County.
Nurse Michael Lowman gets the first dose of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from nurse practitioner Christie Aiello at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, CA, on Dec. 16, 2020. | Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty

Orange County Gets First Doses of COVID-19 Vaccine

A Providence St. Joseph Hospital nurse was the first person in Orange County today to be vaccinated for COVID-19, shortly followed by other health care workers.