inFocus: The hurdles of asylum seekers in the U.S.


(WDVM) — The United States is a country built on immigration, but have you ever stopped to learn what it means to be an immigrant, or what the difference is between an immigrant and a refugee?

‘Immigrant’ and ‘refugee’ are often used interchangeably, but immigration lawyer Marice Morales explains the two are different. “What differentiates an immigrant versus an asylum seeker, [asylum seekers] don’t have the stamp of an immigrant yet,” she said.

There are four legal ways someone can become an immigrant. “It can be through a familial relationship. It can be through employment, adoption or through some kind of special immigrant visa,” Morales said. When someone is an immigrant, they followed a specific process in order to get an immigrant stamp on their passport.

A refugee or asylee does not have the immigrant stamp, and most likely is coming to the United States with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. “The difference is, as a refugee you’re seeking protection into the U.S. while you’re applying from abroad. An asylee is an individual who is already on U.S. soil and asking for the same protection,” said Morales.

While the definition of the two terms is different, the timeline of gaining entry to the country and how they are treated once they are here is different as well. WDVM spoke with a Guatemalan asylee to learn more.

Due to the nature of her situation, the asylee remains anonymous.

“The reason why I left my country was because I was in a violent, life-or-death situation,” she said.

“A lot of the folks that seek to immigrate to this country, unfortunately, are escaping poverty, violence, war, gang recruitment, domestic violence, gang recruitment, etc.,” said Morales.

Not only did the asylee and her child escape from a life-or-death situation in their home country, but they also had to follow strict rules to stay in America while they waited for their case to be heard in court. She explained, “The only thing that they say is that you need luck in this process. I was going to my immigration appointments. I didn’t miss one.”

The woman said she was subject to weekly appointments with immigration officers, random phone calls at her residence and a tracking device on her ankle. All for an undetermined amount of time, as it is unclear exactly how long it will take for each case to make its way before a judge.

“I never knew how long the process was going to take. I kept on telling myself, ‘if I keep following the law, if I do everything that they tell me to do, then I’ll be fine,'” she said. “Because they’ll realize that I’m a person who follows the rules that are put into place.”

According to Morales, cases can take up to 5 or 10 years to get through the court. For her client, things moved quicker, and her asylum was granted because she had a minor with her. However, Morales said the overall system for both refugees and immigrants is unpredictable.

“If you look at it right now, they’re reviewing things from the 1990s, so you’re talking about somebody that’s going to be waiting 20 years to get their petitions processed and granted,” Morales said.

Morales added that while the U.S. has a responsibility to take in people escaping violence or endangered liberties, certain legal practices could be improved to make the process easier and fairer for people like her clients, who dream of living beyond the shadows and making a positive impact in our communities.

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