Understanding Asylum


Whether you’re considering undergoing training to become an immigration evaluation therapist or have been preparing evaluations for years, there will always be times when the terminology of our trade trips us up.

One commonly misunderstood term is the form of protection associated with asylum status, which is frequently confused with that of refugee status. While these two statuses share much overlap, they possess important distinctions that are critical to understand if we are to prepare the most accurate evaluations we can for our clients.

The Difference between Refugees and Asylum-seekers

To understand the status associated with asylum, one must also understand refugee status.

A refugee (i.e., someone holding refugee status) is a person who has left their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution (more on this in a moment). Refugees are typically located outside their home country and are unable or unwilling to return because they fear serious harm (USCIS, 2019).

The critical difference dictating whether someone is eligible to apply for refugee status or asylum status regards a person’s physical location at the time that they apply. As such, while refugee status may only be sought from a location outside of the United States, those seeking asylum status must meet all of the above criteria, while also either being located in the United States or seeking admission at a port of entry to the United States. Additionally, those applying for asylum in the United States can do so irrespective of their country of origin and current immigration status (USCIS, 2015).

Fear of Persecution

To be eligible for either refugee status or asylum status, a person must prove that they face a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. This fear may be on the basis of one of several personal characteristics:


E.g., the Janjaweed, an Arab militia, was accused of perpetrating genocide against members of a particular African tribe in Darfur. A survivor of one such attack could likely qualify for race-based asylum or refugee protection in the United States (Kacou, n.d.).


E.g., someone who has been beaten, detained, or punished for non-adherence to religious customs in their home country may qualify for religion-based asylum or refugee protection in the United States (Kacou, n.d.).


E.g., someone who fears persecution by a dominant national, ethnic, or linguistic group in their home country may qualify for asylum in the United States on the basis of nationality.

Political opinion

Here, ‘political opinion’ refers to any matter on which the state, government, or society is engaged (i.e., this criteria goes beyond identification with political parties).

Membership to a social group

According to the United Nations Refugee Convention, this category tends to encompass gender (among other things; UNHCR, 1985). For example, if a woman asylum-seeker were to face harsh or inhuman treatment as a result of transgressing certain mores in her home country, she may be eligible for asylum in the United States.

How Immigration Evaluation Therapists Help Asylum-seekers

Anyone seeking asylum in the United States needs to prove that they possess a well-founded fear of persecution and will not be protected by the authorities in their home country. That is, the burden of proof falls on the individual seeking asylum status.

This burden often goes hand in hand with several other challenges. For instance, asylum-seekers, having sometimes only recently arrived in the United States, may not speak English. Further, having fled a potentially hostile and frightening situation in their home country, asylum-seekers often suffer from trauma (e.g., PTSD) and other psychological symptoms (e.g., depression, anxiety).

This is where we, as immigration evaluation therapists (and sometimes with the assistance of an interpreter), can help.

Our role is to document objective evidence of the psychological effects of trauma and/or abuse on our clients. This evidence will then be considered in the person’s application for asylum status.

All in all, immigration evaluation therapists can feel confident in their ability to make a difference in the outcome of asylum cases. In 2015 the nonprofit and provider of psychosocial evaluations, Physicians for Human Rights, reported that of the 540 or so evaluations they prepared, asylum was granted in about 90% of cases. This compares to a national application acceptance rate of just 48% that same year (Boodman, 2017).

Closing Thoughts

It is clear that asylum-seekers need our support. If you’re looking for a way to help, consider undertaking asylum evaluation training. You can get started with my course, Mastering Asylum Evaluations, which will teach you how to prepare psychosocial evaluations for asylum-seekers, while leveraging your existing skills and growing your psychology practice.


Boodman, E. (2017, January 25). Fleeing violence, asylum-seekers rely on psychologists to back up their story. Stat Special Report.

Kacou, A. (Ed.). (n.d.). Qualifying for asylum based on persecution for your race. In Nolo Legal Encyclopedia.

Kacou, A. (Ed.). (n.d.). Qualifying for asylum based on persecution for your religion. In Nolo Legal Encyclopedia.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (1985). Refugee women and international protection. Conclusion No.39 (XXXVI) (EXCOM). Retrieved October 25, 2009.

USCIS. (2019). Refugee Definition.

USCIS. (2015, November 12). Refugees and Asylum.

Cecilia Racine: Immigration Evaluation Therapist

I’m Cecilia Racine, and I teach therapists how to help immigrants through my online courses. As a bilingual immigrant myself, I know the unique perspective that these clients are experiencing. I’ve conducted over 300 evaluations and work with dozens of lawyers in the various states. Immigrants are my passion, I believe they add to the fabric of our country.

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