To seek political asylum is to ask for refuge outside one's own country for fear of persecution. In order to obtain a grant of political asylum in the United States an alien must prove that he or she is a refugee as defined in Section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. A refugee has been defined as:
Any individual who is outside of their home country nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, or avail themselves of the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

The term "refugee" does not include any person who ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Any person who has been forced to abort a pregnancy, or to undergo involuntary sterilization, or who has been persecuted for failure or refusal to undergo such a procedure or for other resistance to a coercive population control program, shall be deemed to have been persecuted on account of political opinion, and a person who has a well founded fear that he or she will be forced to undergo such a procedure, or be subject to persecution for such failure, refusal, or resistance shall be deemed to have a well founded fear of persecution on account of political opinion. An alien may qualify as a refugee either because he or she has suffered past persecution, or because he or she has a well-founded fear of future persecution in their home country of nationality or last habitual residence on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, and that they are either unwilling or unable to return to the place that they were persecuted.

The granting of asylum in the United States is discretionary, and is not guaranteed merely by a showing of past persecution or a fear of future persecution. Each year, the U.S. President consults with Congress and establishes the proposed ceilings for refugee admissions for the fiscal year. For the 2001 fiscal year, the total ceiling was set at 80,000 admissions and was allocated to five geographic regions: Africa (20,000 admissions), East Asia (6,000 admissions), Europe (37,000 admissions), Latin America/Caribbean (3,000 admissions), Near East/South Asia (10,000 admissions), and the Unallocated Reserve (4,000).

http://www.ins.usdoj.gov/graphics/services/refugees/index.htm

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