Curious Nashville: What’s The Difference Between Refugees, Asylum Seekers And Immigrants? | Nashville Public Radio

Curious Nashville: What’s The Difference Between Refugees, Asylum Seekers And Immigrants?

Jul 10, 2019

The crisis at the U.S. southern border has dominated headlines for weeks. But it can be hard to make sense of who exactly immigrates, and why.

WPLN listener Jackie Shrago often volunteers with immigrants and wanted to learn more about the population she was serving. So she asked Curious Nashville about the difference between refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants. 

More: Read the story in Spanish. Lee esta nota en español.

South Nashville resident Hinda Ahmed waited 19 years to earn her refugee status in the U.S. Her parents fled Somalia with their nine children when she was just 6 years old. 

“When the government collapsed, they left everything at home, just to get safe,” she says.

In the spring of 2013, Ahmed got the phone call that changed her life. After nearly two decades, she and two of her siblings had finally made the list. They were moving to Nashville.

“That was really the most exciting news that I have ever heard,” Ahmed says.

Ahmed is one of about 350,000 foreign-born Tennessee residents. Refugees make up a piece of that, but the number being resettled here is dropping. Just 419 came last year. In the decade before President Trump took office, the number had surpassed 1,000 each year.

Refugee status, in particular, is a hard thing to come by, says Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

“We often proudly proclaim that we’re a beacon of hope for people fleeing persecution and violence, but, since 2017, the door to safety has been closed,” she says.

So, who qualifies for refugee status, anyway? The United Nations defines a refugee as someone forced to flee their country of origin out of fear of persecution, war or violence. Applicants like Hinda go through a series of background checks, medical screenings, interviews, fingerprints and security checks.

And all of this happens before refugees even make it to the U.S.

“Maybe that’s why it takes so long for us,” Ahmed says. 

So that’s refugees. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, plead their case to stay in the country once they’ve already crossed the border. Otherwise, Sherman-Nikolaus says, the high threshold to gain legal residency status is the same.

After they’re approved, refugees and asylees are allowed to work, drive and get a social security number. They can apply for lawful permanent residency after a year in the U.S. and citizenship after five years.

But these refugees and asylum seekers Shrago asked about only make up a small piece of the immigration puzzle, Sherman-Nikolaus says.

“There’s dozens of ways that people are able to travel here, whether it’s through tourism, business purposes, or they’re coming here to study,” she says.

And the Migration Policy Institute estimates about 11 million immigrants also reside in the U.S. without legal permission. Under Trump, refugee resettlements have plummeted while the number of asylum seekers at the border has surged. When he launched his campaign in 2015, Trump famously warned of Mexican “rapists” who would bring drugs and crime. 

“They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us,” he tells the crowd.

As anti-immigrant rhetoric has amplified in recent years, even the most thoroughly vetted migrants like Hinda Ahmed are on edge.

Ahmed knows how lucky she was to land in the U.S. when she did. Two of her siblings ended up in Europe. Four never got refugee status. Her parents never made it, either.

“My mother died in 2012, a year before we arrived here,” she says.

Ahmed doesn’t plan to waste the opportunity she was granted, the one her parents sacrificed everything for. That’s why she’s studying to become a social worker.

“I love to work with refugees and immigrants and people who went through the same things as I did,” Ahmed says.

Last December, Ahmed applied for citizenship. She hasn’t heard back about an interview date yet, but she’s feeling hopeful. After six years in the U.S., Ahmed says she’s here to stay.


Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.