In the latest data available (FY 2012), the U.S. gave permanent residence (“green cards”) to 87,663 foreigners for humanitarian reasons as refugees or asylees. The data are compiled informatively and exhaustively by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).  It notes grants of asylum were up 19% and refugee admissions were up 3%.

Two-thirds of those new residents entered as refugees and the rest received asylum status. MPI explains the difference between the two categories this way: “In the United States, the main difference between refugees and asylees is the location of the person at the time of application.” Refugees are identified overseas and invited to come to the United States. Asylees have come to the United States on their own and then ask to be able to stay.

But that explanation misses a major distinction between the two categories. Refugees are screened abroad on the basis of the international standard that they have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear persecution if forced to return to their homeland. In theory, the same standard applies to asylees, except in practice the criteria for offering protection are much broader when they are in the United States. An example is that Chinese are not invited to come as refugees because they are subject to the potentially abusive family planning policies of their government. But, if they are in the United States, they can make that claim and gain asylum. Similarly, persons suffering gender abuse abroad are not admitted as refugees, but if they are here they can gain asylum by making that claim. Another example of the dual standard is for women seeking protection against tribal circumcision rites.

The significance of the dual standard in the administration of humanitarian protection policy is that it creates both an incentive for foreigners to attempt to enter the United States through fraudulent application for a visa or through illegal entry, and it offers the alien the opportunity to abuse the hearings system for deciding on asylum claims by fabricating stories about past or future abuse.