The fundamental right to seek refuge is protected under international and domestic law. This right has been increasingly politicized as more people are forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution.
Too often, when we talk about migration, the conversation gets reduced to the “right way” or “wrong way” to enter the United States. The tragedy of the U.S. immigration system is that we have dramatically reduced the number of humanitarian pathways that allow people to enter the country. Those that do exist are narrower and harder to access than many realize.
There are several pathways to enter the United States, some of which involve decades-long wait times—time that those fleeing violence and persecution often do not have. For those people and their families, humanitarian parole, refugee status, and asylum are the three most common ways to pursue safety in the United States.
Humanitarian Parole Program
Humanitarian parole programs provide limited permission for those who urgently need to enter the United States but do not have a visa or other immigration benefits. These temporary initiatives are created under the authority of a presidential administration. They are typically used to provide entry to the United States for those seeking medical treatment, attending a family member’s funeral, serving as an organ donor, or needing protection from harm.
Administrations sometimes use humanitarian parole as a temporary response to speed up U.S. admissions in response to armed conflict and crises. Recent humanitarian parole programs include “Uniting for Ukraine” for Ukrainian nationals fleeing Russian military occupation and “Operation Allies Welcome” for Afghan nationals fleeing Taliban persecution.
Unlike programs like asylum or refugee resettlement which grant the recipient permanent status in the United States with full liberties, these programs allow people to enter the United States temporarily. Their legal protections typically last no more than two years. After that, recipients are often stuck living in limbo in the United States without a clear pathway to citizenship or a way to return to their homeland.
After World War II, the United Nations established the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defined the term refugee and informed our definition of asylum in the United States. To qualify for this protection, one must present a credible fear of persecution based on race and ethnicity, nationality, political opinion, religion, or membership in a particular social group or identity. A “particular social group” is a category based on social identity, personal background, etc. It includes people who face or experience persecution because of a shared commonality, such as young women from a certain region who are at risk of human trafficking.
Generally, refugee resettlement in the United States begins with another government or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reviewing a credible fear of persecution claim. Once screened and referred to the United States, the Department of Homeland Security holds a refugee determination interview and performs additional vetting. Refugees wait in refugee camps or third countries until officially approved to resettle in the United States.
The government limits the number of refugees that can be resettled each year. The current U.S. refugee admission maximum, frequently called a ceiling or cap, is 125,000—a bounce back from a historic low of 15,000 during the Trump Administration. However, having a robust refugee ceiling doesn’t guarantee that number of people will be resettled. In 2022, only 25,000 out of 125,000 refugees were processed and brought to the United States, and the Biden administration is not on track to reach its goal for 2023.
Funding and capacity challenges contribute to low resettlement rates. This creates long wait times for resettlement, leaving many families and individuals stranded in refugee camps or third countries for years. Many vulnerable people urgently need a pathway to safety, which applying for asylum could offer.
Asylum Seekers and Asylum Status
The grounds for seeking asylum are similar to the requirements for refugee status. However, the process for seeking asylum varies greatly from refugee resettlement. An asylum seeker’s claim is not evaluated or processed before they flee their country. U.S. immigration law requires asylum seekers to physically present themselves in the United States or at a U.S. port of entry to apply for protection. Entering the United States is an appropriate and “right way” for asylum seekers to file their cases.
A challenge many asylum seekers encounter is the narrow and stringent criteria of our asylum laws and processes. Many seeking protections do not satisfy the grounds for asylum. For example, economic hardships and climate-related displacement are not independent grounds for asylum. Mass asylum case backlogs cause long processing delays, sometimes causing years-long waits, which stall claim determinations and asylum seekers’ ability to live fruitful and unencumbered lives in the United States.
Recently, the U.S. government has threatened the fundamental right to seek asylum—a right protected under domestic and international law. A Trump-era policy known as Title 42 has been used since 2020 to expel thousands of asylum seekers before they can present their claims. The Biden administration has continued this harmful policy and is pursuing new rules to block asylum seekers from entering the United States as Title 42 sunsets.
Asylum bans put vulnerable migrants in harm’s way. By making it harder for people to apply for refuge through these pathways, we are pushing people fleeing persecution towards dangerous, violent channels for migration.
No Such Thing as “Right Way”
Existing humanitarian immigration pathways are narrow and difficult to access. People coming to the United States to seek refuge aren’t circumventing the law but trying to follow our processes.
We cannot turn our backs on those we promised protection; we cannot cause further harm.
The U.S. government should commit to strengthening and increasing our capacity to welcome those fleeing violence by adequately funding existing programs like humanitarian parole, refugee resettlement, and asylum processing and pursuing additional permanent pathways for people entering the United States.