Refuge and asylum are similar in that they apply to non-citizens who are unable to return to their country of origin as a result of persecution or well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion. Whereas refugees are persons who apply for resettlement from outside the U.S., asylees do so from within the country or at a port of entry. Persons granted asylum or refugee status are entitled to work in the U.S., and both groups can apply for LPR status after one year of continuous residence.
The quota for refugee admissions is set every year by the President in consultation with Congress, and it has been reduced significantly in recent years. In 1980, when the admissions ceiling was first introduced, it was set at 231,700 persons. From 2003 to 2007 the ceiling annual on refugee admissions was set at 70,000. Since 2008 the limit has been 80,000 per year. No quotas are set for asylum admissions.
In 2011 a total of 56,384 refugees were admitted to the U.S. The leading countries of origin were Burma (30%), Bhutan (27%), and Iraq (17%). In addition to these refugees, 24,988 people were granted asylum in 2011. The top 5 countries of origin for persons granted asylum in 2011 were China (34%), Venezuela (4.4%), Ethiopia (4.3%), Egypt (4.1%), and Haiti (3.5%). Nationals of these countries accounted for more than half of all persons granted asylum.
U.S. refugee policy has been the subject of serious criticism, particularly in recent years and with respect to the low number of people granted refugee status. In the 1990s, an average of 100,000 refugees arrived in the U.S. every year; in the 2000-2006 period, this average had declined to 50,000, well below the authorized quota. This sharp decline was due to increased security enforcement measures in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and tightened asylum eligibility criteria. Between 2006 and 2010 the number of refugee arrivals rebounded, reaching 73,293 in 2010.