Please Note: The information on this page was compiled soon after the film was completed. It has been updated to some extent, but may not be totally current.
As defined by the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1954) and its subsequent Protocol (1967), a refugee is any person who has left his or her home country and who is unable to return to live there safely because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”
Refugee status is very similar to asylum status (see below), except that a person seeking refugee status is outside of the United States and must apply directly to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to receive recognition. The U.N. conducts International Police Organization (Interpol) checks, interviews the applicant, reviews the evidence and then grants or denies recognition as a refugee.
If refugee status is granted, the UNHCR will grant the applicant a refugee travel document, will provide assistance, and will work with a number of countries to facilitate the applicant's resettlement. If the refugee wishes to resettle in the United States, the U.S. government will review the refugee status claim before proceeding. The UNHCR estimates that there are approximately 20 million refugees worldwide and the United States accepts 75,000 to 100,000 annually.
An internally displaced person is someone who may have been forced to flee his or her home for the same reasons as a refugee, but who has not crossed an internationally recognized border. Many IDPs are in refugee-like situations, facing the same problems as refugees. The UNHCR estimates that there are 30 million so-called IDPs globally, more than the estimated 20 million refugees, and the UNHCR helps 6.3 million of these.
Someone who has left his or her country of origin, has applied for residential protection in another country, and is awaiting a decision on that application is referred to as an asylum seeker.
To obtain asylum in the United States, applicants must submit a petition directly to the U.S. government, demonstrating fear of persecution in the applicant’s native country based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group and/or political opinion. U.S. law requires that an application for asylum be filed within one year of the person's arrival in the United States, although exceptions are made in some cases. The application is reviewed and decided by an immigration officer and/or an immigration court.
The procedure and evidence required for a U.S. asylum application are significantly more complex than for a U.N. refugee status application. There is also a danger of applicants being held in detention while their request is being considered if they have entered the United States illegally. Additionally, asylum applicants must wait 150 days after filing to seek employment authorization.
Each year the United States gives permanent residence to 10,000 asylum seekers. Immediate family of the applicant may also be eligible for asylum status, provided that those family members were named in the asylum application. Family members do not need to be present in the United States when the application is filed.
Returnees are refugees who have voluntarily returned to their own countries. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees assists and monitors the reintegration of returnees.
A person who enters a country without meeting legal requirements for entry or residence is referred to as an illegal immigrant (in the U.S. often also as "undocumented"). Refugees may technically fall into this category because they may not be able to obtain the necessary documents when trying to escape their home country. For example, governments often refuse to issue passports to known political dissidents or imprison them if they apply. However, Article 31 of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees specifies that states “shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or residence, on refugees coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened…” Furthermore, according to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum.
Permanent U.S. resident status provides an individual with an immigrant visa or "green card” and the lifetime right to enter, exit, work, and live in the U.S. for their entire lifes. Individuals granted asylum may seek permanent residency status one year after receiving asylum status. Each year the U.S. gives permanent residence to 10,000 asylum seekers.
An immigrant who becomes a citizen of the United States is referred to as a naturalized citizen. Such individuals enjoy all the rights of those who were born U.S. citizens. Citizenship is not easily obtained. An applicant must meet the following eligibility criteria:
There are only a few exceptions in which a person can move directly from having no status or a temporary visa to obtaining U.S. citizenship. Applying for citizenship puts a person’s entire immigration history on the line.The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly called the INS) carefully investigates an applicant’s background as an immigrant. If it discovers something amiss — for example, that a person used fraud to get a green card, is residing outside the United States, or has become deportable for any reason — it can revoke an applicant’s green card and send him or her out of the country.