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The similarities and differences between refugees and asylum seekers coming to Arizona

We hear a lot about the record number of migrants who are arriving at the southern border — many of them seeking asylum in our country. It’s sparked outrage from some and concern from others as the political rhetoric around the border crisis heats up. 

But, at the same time, Arizona saw a record number of refugees come to the state last year.

As KJZZ News has reported, the state is on pace for a nearly 50% jump in arrivals this year. But, we don’t see headlines about that population coming to our shores. 

Julia Gelatt with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute joined The Show to talk about the difference between the two populations — and the similarities

Interview highlights

JULIA GELATT: What we've seen is that the number of refugees coming to the United States is really starting to rebound after some very low numbers of refugee resettlement during the Trump years and during the COVID pandemic. The Biden administration has been aiming for a high of 125,000 refugees per year. They haven't yet gotten there. But they're working on increasing the monthly number of refugees resettled. There were over 60,000 last year.

LAUREN GILGER: Wow. And how does that compare to the numbers of asylum seekers who are presenting themselves at the U.S. border?

GELATT: We're seeing really high numbers of people coming to the border. We're seeing, you know, over 2 million people coming to the border in recent years. The number who ultimately are able to get asylum is much smaller or will likely be much smaller. But the process takes years and years. So we don't yet know how many of those people will be successful in their asylum applications.

GILGER: Yeah, but just many more people coming that way. OK So then let's get to some basic definitions here. Like what is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker? Why do we hear so much more about one than the other?

GELATT: Yeah, refugees are vetted abroad. So they are people who are fleeing their home countries because of persecution. They present themselves to someone, usually from a UN agency, an international agency, and are vetted to see if they meet the refugee definition. By the time they come to the United States, they've been screened by the U.S. government. They've gone through interviews and background checks and health checks. They've [been] determined to be a refugee in need of protection and to meet our definitions and they're resettled in the United States already with that refugee status. So they come with legal status,.

GILGER: Right. And that's very different than an asylum seeker, sort of almost the other way around, right?

GELATT: Exactly. Asylum seekers come onto U.S. soil or come to U.S. port of entry and they ask for protection here. They're entitled to ask for that protection no matter how they came across the border. And then they're put into asylum proceedings, which take many, many years. Eventually they'll either be granted asylum and then they'll be in a situation like a refugee or their asylum application might be denied and they'll be issued a removal order from the United States unless they're eligible for something else.

GILGER: Is everyone who arrives at the southern border seeking asylum, have they been able to even try to become a refugee beforehand? Is this available in all parts of the world?

GELATT: It's really not in two different ways. There are over 10 million people around the world who have been identified as needing protection. But the number of people who will ultimately find a path to become a refugee in some country around the world is much, much smaller. So there are many people who want refugee protection but aren't able to access it.

It's also the case that the U.S. refugee resettlement program has concentrated on certain parts of the world and certain countries. We traditionally haven't had a lot of refugee resettlement out of the Americas. That's now increasing a little bit, but that often hasn't been available for people to seek to become a refugee and arrive to the United States as a refugee.

GILGER: So in terms of like the, the situations that refugees are coming from like how do they qualify? Is this from war-torn countries, from famine, from poverty or how specific does it have to be?

GELATT: Yeah, to meet the definition of being a refugee or an asylee, someone needs to prove that they've either faced persecution or are likely to face persecution on the grounds of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. So it's a pretty narrow definition. People either have to show that they were personally persecuted for some characteristic, some protected ground or that they're very likely to face persecution on those grounds.

GILGER: So how different is that from the people who are coming to our southern border, seeking asylum? Like as you said, many of them will not be granted asylum after this very long and kind of backlogged process. But lots of folks who are arriving are coming from, you know, situations that sound pretty similar to that.

GELATT: Yeah, you know, I think it varies a lot by the country that people are coming from in countries like Venezuela and Cuba and Nicaragua. You know, many people are facing persecution because of their political opinions. They might be facing repression directly from the government. That's a fairly clear cut refugee or asylum case.

Other people are fleeing things that are really terrible, like, you know, generalized gang violence that may or may not qualify them for asylum or for refugee status. Other people are fleeing extreme poverty and they're looking for a way to support themselves and their families. That does not qualify someone for humanitarian protection as a refugee or asylee.

GILGER: So, I wonder why do you think we hear so much debate, so much fear, often vitriol, you know, directed toward asylum seekers as we see so many of them coming to the border, but really not toward refugees, who will often be welcomed with open arms.

GELATT: Yeah, I think it's a couple of things. I mean, one thing is that, you know, there's a strong sense in the United States that people should follow the rules and shouldn't break our laws. Even though it's legal for someone to come across the border without permission, to sneak across the border and then ask for asylum, that's seen as breaking our border laws. And, you know, I think there's a sense that migrants should get in line, and that there is a line that they could get in and come the right way, come the legal way to the United States. Refugees are coming already vetted already with legal status. So the country has already determined that they're in need of protection that they qualify to live in the United States, that they don't present a harm to the country and has decided to offer them protection. But asylum seekers, they're choosing for themselves to come to us soil and to ask for protection. That feels a little bit like the country doesn't have control and, you know, we haven't yet determined whether these people are eligible for protection in the United States or not. So, I think it's also seems a little bit overwhelming the numbers of people who are coming and there's that sense of sort of disorder at the border.

GILGER: I wonder if you think that people fully understand this or if there is sort of an amalgamation that happens often when you're, you know, somebody who is an immigrant from somewhere else and has fled for certain reasons, like whether everyone's treated fairly?

GELATT: I think a lot of things get mixed up. There's the mixing up of people who are coming just for economic opportunity and you know, don't have a strong need for protection with people who do really need protection. There's a mixing up of kind of how our immigration laws work. I think a lot of Americans have the impression that migrants can go to a consulate or some kind of official abroad and say that they need protection and find a legal way to the United States. In some cases, if they find an international organization, they can come as a refugee. But that's a very, very narrow pathway for most people. There is no way to say abroad, "I need protection and I want to come to the U.S." They have to make their way through a really dangerous and difficult journey onto U.S. soil and then ask for protection.

And then there's the fact that, you know, people are coming for all kinds of different reasons and, and often they're coming for multiple reasons. People may be fleeing poverty and if a journalist asks them, they might say I want to come and make more money, but they might also be fleeing some kind of persecution in their home country. Or they may be fleeing primarily because of persecution. So, there's a lot of sorting that needs to happen and it's taking the U.S. too long, I think to do that, sorting for asylum seekers.

GILGER: And would the recommendations that come from an organization like NPI in terms of that just be more investment in that system, in the immigration system, in the asylum system?

GELATT: That's right. You know, if we had just a lot more resources for our asylum system, people could get an answer on their asylum case much more quickly. Right now. it's taking five or more years. In the meantime, people are putting down roots in the United States, they're starting their lives here and, and they get the impression that they get to stay. People in their home countries, see people leave and not come back. And I think that they were just able to stay in the United States.

If their asylum case was decided quickly, within six months or so, the people who need protection would get it more quickly. The people who aren't eligible for asylum would be returned to their home countries more quickly and that would send a pretty different message.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record. 

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.