The concept of asylum is not new; the Old Testament mentions “cities of refuge” and in all likelihood the idea goes back farther than that. Asylum, as we understand it today, differs somewhat from refuge; the asylum-seeker (or asylee) seeks his or her status after arriving in what is hoped will be the welcoming country. The refugee is given that status before traveling to the final destination. The basic premise, however, is the same: People who face persecution, torture, or even death in their home country are sometimes compelled to seek shelter and protection in another land.
Asylum is a complex issue because people have many different reasons for leaving their homeland and not all asylum seekers warrant protection from another government. A person who leaves a country in which people are routinely tortured or killed for their political or religious beliefs may seem at first blush a prime candidate for asylum. If, however, that person was one of the torturers and merely wishes to avoid imprisonment when a new government takes over, asylum may not be justified. For this and other reasons, the process of obtaining asylum is a complicated one involving a series of interviews and paperwork that to many can seem daunting.
The history of asylum in the United States goes back to the days when America was still a group of British colonies. Roman Catholics, Jews, and certain Protestant sects (such as the Quakers from England and the Huguenots from France) sailed to America to seek the freedom to practice their religion without fear of recrimination. Historically, the United States has stood stands as a symbol of freedom and has attracted persecuted men and women from other shores. At times, the influx has been so great that legal restrictions have had to be imposed. Historical events, such as World Wars I and II, revolutions in other countries, and the attacks in New York and Washington D. C. on September 11, 2001, also play a role in how, when, and to whom asylum is granted.