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Asylum 101

The definitions provided below are intended to be informative without drowning you in technicalities that, while important, can be overwhelming to lay people. If you are a wonk (as we know many of you are) or just looking for a deeper dive, you’ll find a list of additional resources at the end of this page.

Who is a refugee?
A person outside of their home country who is unable or unwilling to return home because they fear persecution. Generally, the term refugee refers to any person who has been forcibly displaced from their home country. Most refugees find temporary safety in a neighboring country from which they seek protection; once granted, they are formally relocated to another country.  These individuals are considered resettled refugees (see more below).

What is persecution?
Violence or the threat of imminent violence against someone because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or membership in a particular social group. Persecution is committed by the government or an entity that the government is unwilling or unable to control.

What is asylum?
A protected immigration status granted by the U.S. government to a refugee located in the U.S. who has proven that they suffered persecution in their home country and/or that they face a well-founded fear of persecution if they return home.

Who is an asylum seeker?
A refugee who applies for U.S. protection while located inside the U.S. The distinction about where a refugee is located when they apply for protection is what determines how refugees are categorized by the immigration system. As defined above, a refugee located in the U.S. when applying for U.S. protection is an asylum seeker. A refugee located in a third party country (neither their home country nor the U.S.) when applying for U.S. protection will become a resettled refugee. Most of the refugees in the U.S. are resettled refugees. Generally, FHD serves only asylum seekers.

Where do Freedom House Detroit residents come from?
In 1983, when we first opened our doors, most of our clients came from El Salvador. Over the course of the next 35 years, we’ve received residents from Afghanistan, Colombia, Guinea, Uganda, and many other countries. To see where our most recent clients are from, click here.

How do Freedom House Detroit clients escape their country in the first place?
Most are forced to go into hiding for a period of time while family and friends find assistance to help them escape. That assistance may include helping their loved one obtain a visa from the U.S. Embassy or paying off authorities to guarantee safe passage out of the country.

Why can't they just move to another part of their own country?
A person  who can safely relocate within their own country is not eligible for asylum. Often, our clients are activists whose governments want to stop them from advocating for democratic change and human rights. There is nowhere in their home countries that is safe from the reach of their governments.

How do asylum seekers get to the U.S. and then to Freedom House Detroit?
Typically, our clients obtain visas from the U.S. embassy in their home countries and then travel to the U.S. by air. Upon arrival, many have no idea where they will go next. Some may have a contact or be in touch with our alumni. Others simply find someone at the airport speaking their native language and ask for help. Eventually, through word of mouth or Internet searches, they find us.

Is seeking asylum a lawful process?
Yes, according to U.S. and international law, people fleeing persecution can seek the protection of another country. In the U.S., asylum seekers must submit their asylum application within one-year of arrival.

How does Freedom House Detroit know its residents abide by the law?
Rooted in over 30 years of asylum assistance experience, Freedom House Detroit has developed a comprehensive assessment and application process that ensures our clients are thoroughly vetted and that their applications meet the steep evidentiary demands for asylum in the U.S. 

Within 48 hours of a client’s arrival, our social workers conduct a comprehensive intake assessment to determine the client’s immediate social, emotional, and physical needs. Next, our legal team, as well as licensed therapists and doctors, interview and examine our clients to determine the credibility of their claims. If our legal team determines the client is eligible to apply for asylum, as outlined under US asylum law, the arduous, months-long application process begins. During those months, our staff work together with the client to collect the documents and testimony required to prove their case. Once their asylum application is received by the U.S. government, all asylum seekers are required to undergo fingerprinting and extensive background checks.

Can Freedom House Detroit residents work while awaiting asylum?
Yes, but, generally, not for about 10 - 18 months.  Asylum seekers must apply to the U.S. government for a work permit. But, they are not eligible for the permit until six months after they submit their asylum application (which, itself, is a months-long process).

Are FHD’s clients eligible for government benefit programs, like food stamps, while they await asylum?
No. Until they have been granted asylum, asylum seekers are not eligible for any cash, food, healthcare, or other federal public assistance benefits.

How long do residents stay at Freedom House Detroit?
On average, clients remain with us for 12 - 18 months but no more than 24 months. That maximum length of stay is dictated by funding regulations, not the asylum process.

How long does it take to gain asylum?
Every case is different. Most clients have waited two or more years from the time they submit their application. For the last several years, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), has struggled to process the ever-growing backlog of asylum applications.

For an overview of the entire asylum process, click here.

Looking for more information?
If you would like to learn more about immigration policy, human rights issues, refugee needs, and initiatives to promote inclusion and opportunity for immigrants, check out these organizations:

ACLU of Michigan
African Bureau for Immigration and Social Affairs (ABISA)
American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee
American Immigration Council
Amnesty International
Black LGBTQ Migrant Project
Center for Victims of Torture
Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation
Global Detroit
International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit
International Rescue Committee
Human Rights Watch
LGBT Freedom and Asylum Network
Michigan Immigrant Rights Center
Michigan Office for New Americans
Michigan United
ProsperUS Detroit
UndocuBlack Network
UNHCR - The UN Refugee Agency
United States Citizen and Immigration Services
U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Welcoming Michigan

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