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Definition of a refugee

The international community agreed to a common definition of “refugee” in 1951 with the signing  of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees. The United States Congress  legally adopted this definition when it passed the Refugee Act of 1980. This definition states: 

A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave his/her homeland and is unable to  return because she or he has experienced persecution or has a well- founded fear of  persecution. Persecution can be related to race, nationality, religion, political opinions, or  membership in a particular social group.

How do refugees differ from others who enter the United States? A variety of different  words are used when discussing newcomers to our country. Although the words are often used  interchangeably, each term has a distinct meaning: Refugees are people who have been forced to leave their own country because of persecution  or a well-founded fear of persecution. Refugees are outside the borders of the United States  when they request an opportunity to begin a new life in our country. Unless the situation in their  country changes, refugees are unable to safely return to their homeland.  

Asylees also flee their own country because of persecution. Asylees are also unable to safely  return to their homeland. Unlike refugees, however, asylees are already within the borders of  the United States when they request permission to stay. Asylees usually enter the U.S. with a  temporary visa (visitor, tourist, etc.) and then request permission to remain permanently.  

Immigrants are people who come to the United States, often for family or economic reasons.  Immigrants choose to leave their own country, and can usually return safely at any time.  Immigrants are allowed to permanently live and work in the United States if they have close  family members already living here who are willing to sponsor them or if they have job skills that  are in demand in the United States. The term immigrant is also used broadly to refer to anyone  who has come to reside in the United States from another country.  

Undocumented Immigrants are people who come to  the United States for a variety of reasons, including fear of persecution, economic necessity, or  to be close to family members. The difference between undocumented immigrants and other  immigrants, refugees, or asylees is that undocumented immigrants enter the United States without official authorization to live and work here. 

These terms refer to newcomers who intend to reside permanently in the U.S. Another category  of newcomers are those who enter the United States with a temporary visa to visit friends and  relatives, travel or study. Most temporary visitors cannot legally work in the U.S. and must return  to their homeland when their visa expires. (Adapted from Exodus World Service)