What is asylum?
Asylum is a legal immigration status awarded by the U.S. government to persons who meet the definition of a refugee but are already in the United States. A refugee is defined as a person who has suffered persecution or fears he or she will suffer persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group and/or political opinion at the hands of a group the government of their home country either cannot or will not control.
Where do Freedom House residents come from?
Freedom House residents come from all over the world. Currently most of our residents are from Rwanda, Cameroon, Guinea, Uganda, Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo. As conflicts in the world rage, Freedom House sees changes in the nationalities of our clients. We are open to any asylum seekers - there is no requirement to be from a certain area of the world.
How do Freedom House residents escape their country in the first place?
Most Freedom House residents have to flee their home country in secret. Many are forced to go into hiding for a period of time while family and friends find assistance to help them escape. Some are able to fly out of their home country using false identification information or by having a family member or friend bribe police. Almost all are forced to leave without the opportunity to say goodbye to loved ones because of the danger to themselves and their families.
Why can't they just move to another part of their own country?
People who have the option of relocating within their own country are not eligible for asylum. Our clients are often activists whose governments want to stop them from advocating for democratic change and human rights. There is no where our clients can safely go in their countries because of this.
How do refugees get to the U.S., and then to Freedom House?
Most of our clients obtain U.S. visas in their home countries and fly to the United States. Upon landing in the U.S. many have no idea where they will go next -they just hope that they will be safe if they make it to the U.S. Some may have a contact, others simply find someone at the airport speaking their native language and ask for help. Eventually through word of mouth or searching the Internet some come across a place that will help them with shelter and legal assistance for free - Freedom House.
Are they here legally?
When our clients arrive in the U.S. they typically are in status - meaning they have valid visas. While at Freedom House we work to complete asylum applications, which are then submitted to the U.S. government. Once the U.S. government receives the application clients continue to be "legally" present even if their visa expires, because by making their application they have made themselves known to the U.S. government, in effect saying: "I am here. Please help me. I am not safe if I go back to my home country".
How does Freedom House know it's not helping people who have had to flee their country for committing a crime, or for being a terrorist?
Freedom House has an extensive intake process. Also we have multiple professionals, from attorneys to licensed therapists to medical doctors, working with clients and who are able to testify that the physical evidence and mental health issues corroborate what the client states happened back home. Freedom House feels confident that, given our over 30-year history and the extensive work done with each client, those we are helping are truly victims of horrific torture and violence simply because they chose to express an opinion, support democracy or work for justice.
Can Freedom House residents support themselves by getting a job while they apply for asylum?
No. Obtaining a work permit in the United States is a very difficult process. Once an asylum application is received by the U.S. government, a client must wait 180 days from that date to be eligible for a work permit. However, if the client is referred to Immigration Court to have the application reviewed there, this can affect eligibility and many residents are not eligible for work authorization even after the 180-day waiting period. For our clients, who were activists and supported their families back home, this is very demoralizing and degrading and leaves them completely dependent on private charity. Asylum applicants receive absolutely no cash, food assistance or other public benefits from the U.S. government.
How long do residents live at Freedom House?
It varies. A person has one year from the date of his/her arrival in the U.S. to submit an asylum application. Thus, someone who arrived in the U.S. in March 2014 and does not arrive at Freedom House until December 2014 will only be at Freedom House for less than six months before the application is submitted. But a person who arrives in the U.S. in March 2014 and immediately comes to Freedom House may have to wait almost a year for legal assistance. This is because of the limited legal resources at Freedom House and the need to ensure each application is submitted within the one-year time frame. In addition, if a client is referred to Immigration Court after the asylum interview, a backlog in the Immigration Court system means clients can wait years to for their hearing. Each case varies.