For thousands of years, sovereign nations have offered asylum to those fleeing persecution in their native countries. An asylee is a particular kind of refugee.
"An individual in the United States may seek asylum protection because they have a well-grounded fear of past or future persecution if they return home," says Chris Rhatigan, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The United States granted asylum to 22,930 individuals in 2008 and 74,313 in the last 3 years. These individuals were determined to have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear they would be persecuted in their home countries on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinions.
Asylum-seekers in the U.S. may file an application for asylum regardless of country of origin or current immigration status. Each will have an interview or hearing of his or her case.
The application may be filed "affirmatively" or "defensively". In the case of affirmative asylum, a person who is not in removal proceedings comes forward and applies for asylum with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a component of the Department of Homeland Security.
"U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers evaluate each application on a case-by-case basis considering the individual facts," says Ms. Rhatigan. The officers interview the asylum applicant, review relevant documentation, and conduct research into country conditions to determine eligibility.
Defensive asylum is requested by an individual who is already in a form of removal proceedings from the U.S. These cases are heard by an immigration judge of the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review. Last year, USCIS granted about 33 percent of affirmative asylum requests and immigration judges granted about 45 percent of defensive asylum requests.
One asylee, human rights activist Ramon Humberto Colas came to the U.S. from Cuba:
"For this reason, because of my promotion of the culture, my activism, and in defense of intellectual liberty I was forced to leave my country."
Mr. Colas said he has found freedom to express his ideas in the U.S:
"I had lost 40 years of my life in my country. It seemed short because you have to know how to suffer in situations like that one. But in the United States my life changed completely.”
Providing protection to individuals through asylum is just one part of the United States' ongoing support for human rights around the world.