June 30, 2000

U.S. extends benefits to immigrants with asylum

June 16, 2000 - In a sweeping policy shift that could affect thousands of asylum-seeking immigrants, a federal agency has extended the same educational and financial benefits now received by refugees to immigrants who have won asylum cases.

The new policy will mean successful asylum seekers released from Immigration and Naturalization Service detention centers can receive the same English classes, job placement, health benefits and rental assistance that refugees are getting.

Advocates have questioned why asylum seekers, who must prove they faced persecution at home, were treated differently than refugees, who have been deemed victims of persecution by the international community.

The key difference is how they come to the United States and other host countries. Refugees are designated as a group while they are still living abroad, usually in hastily constructed refugee camps, and are then transported to host countries that offer an array of services. Asylum seekers have fled persecution individually. In the United States, they are detained while their cases are pending, at least if they are caught entering the country without proper immigration documents.

Advocates said they will have to scramble to educate detainees about their newly won eligibility before they are released and disappear. And asylees will continue to have problems seeking work immediately, because the INS takes two or three months to issue them work authorization cards.

This year, the U.S. government will bring roughly 75,000 refugees into the country from war-torn or otherwise unstable regions around the world. But roughly 35,000 other immigrants who have made their own way to the United States will seek political asylum. About a third of them will win their cases.

Although these successful asylees have proved a "well-founded fear" of persecution if they return home, they received no assistance before yesterday.

Experts said they were technically eligible for the same eight months of benefits received by refugees, but since it often took at least that long to win their cases, few received them.

Information for this story provided by the Center for Immigration Studies.

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