refugee vs asylum

Asylum Seeker vs. Refugee – What’s the Difference?

What are refugees and asylum seekers? The words “refugee” and “asylum seeker,” though used in common conversation as one and the same, in fact, have important legal distinctions which are at the heart of international issues, including political persecution and poverty. These issues keep families figuratively and literally divided across borders, sometimes for years and sometimes forever. Realizing what leads individuals to seek asylum or become refugees from their home countries can be a helpful first step in understanding these issues, as well as knowing where you can give help or get help if you need it.  

Refugee vs. Asylum Seeker

How are refugees and asylum seekers different? First, let’s start by defining each term to gain a better understanding. 

Refugee Definition

A refugee is a person who was forced to flee their home country due to persecution, war or because their home government cannot or will not protect them. To be legally considered a refugee in the United States, an individual must be located outside of the U.S.; be able to validate previous or feared persecution based on the individual’s race, religion, nationality, social class or political viewpoint; be of special humanitarian concern to the U.S; not be firmly resettled in another country; and be admissible to the U.S. The complete definition of a refugee can be found at §101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

Fleeing refugees, who are often part of large groups, usually raise the attention of an official entity such as the United Nations, which obtains the refugees’ access to international aid and assistance. If coming to the U.S., a refugee must be referred to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for consideration as a refugee by way of a Refugee Status Determination, or RSD. 

Provided that an individual meets the definition of a refugee, and was either referred by the UN Refugee Agency, the U.S. Embassy or is a member of a specified group with special characteristics in a certain country (in other words, on a pre-approved list), the individual may be granted a refugee visa, meaning they have a valid refugee visa in the USA. 

Individuals applying for refugee status may include on their application their spouse, unmarried children under 21, and in some limited circumstances, other family members. Same-sex couples are permitted to apply as spouses, provided their marriage was legally valid in the place where they were wed.   

Refugees are entitled to many benefits and protections, as explained below. 

Asylum Seeker Definition 

While refugees and asylum seekers often share many traits, the difference between asylum and refugee status is in that the individual’s status as an asylum seeker is essentially “limbo” while awaiting a determination of whether or not they qualify as a refugee. 

The legal definition of asylum is the status granted to a person who has successfully proven to the U.S. government that they are a refugee. Herein lies the core issue between asylum or refugee status, as between asylum vs. refugee. The asylum law definition under the 8 U.S. Code §1158 is that asylum is granted to a person who has met the burden of proof to the Attorney General that race, nationality, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion was or will be at least one central reason that the applicant will be persecuted in her/his home country. 

Asylum seekers have applied to the U.S. government for refugee status and are in the process of leaving their country of origin to avoid persecution due to their nationality, race, religion, or political affiliation. As can be imagined, the waiting game can put asylum seekers in grave danger if they haven’t already physically left their country but are trying to do so. Additionally, asylum seekers who take the chance of coming to America, such as at a land crossing or airport, enjoy no guarantee that they will not be sent immediately back home. 

Additionally, while they await a decision from the U.S. government, asylum seekers are entitled to nearly no benefits and protections, as explained below.

Learn how to apply for asylum in Houston, Texas. 

us immigration form

How Do Asylum Seekers Become Refugees?

It is possible for an asylum seeker to become a refugee, and in fact, many refugees once began as asylum seekers. The question is whether or not the United States government recognizes the legitimacy of the persecution the asylum seeker is fleeing—which has had the effect of elevating whole groups to refugee status, and fast-tracking the protections and benefits associated with being a refugee. This has raised complex issues such as: 

  • Asylum seekers crossing the Mexico/United States border 
  • Seeking asylum from violence associated with drug cartels in Latin American countries 
  • Asylum seekers who have been accepted or rejected at different points in recent history due to interpretations of what constitutes economic, social and political persecution 

Though many asylum seekers have appealed on the grounds of the violence against them, they have not as a group been granted refugee status. The decisions for these asylum seekers are still made on a case-by-case basis. 

What Rights Do Refugees and Asylum Seekers Have?

The United States follows the international 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol in addition to its own federal law, the Refugee Act of 1980, governing the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. The Refugee Act provides a road map for refugees in terms of assistance they may be granted, which includes: 

  • Loans for travel 
  • Advice for travel 
  • A medical examination 
  • A cultural orientation 
  • Medical assistance 
  • Cash assistance 
  • Access to food stamps 
  • Access to housing assistance 
  • Immediate eligibility for a work permit through Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization
  • Help from caseworkers 
  • Access to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) which links refugees with available support from federal, state, and local government agencies and nonprofits. 

Asylum seekers, on the other hand, have nearly no rights or access to U.S. benefits. They must find their own interpreter to help them navigate government screening procedures and application review, they cannot get food, housing, or financial assistance, and they are ineligible to work in the United States until their status is determined. 

Can Refugees or Asylum Seekers Be Deported?

Both refugees and asylum seekers can be deported from the U.S., though the standard for refugees is far higher. For refugees who have successfully obtained a green card, possible reasons for deportation include failing to notify the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of a change of address, violation of U.S. immigration laws, remaining a “public charge” on government assistance for longer than five (5) years, and commission of any of the crimes listed in §237 (a) of the Immigrant and Nationality Act, which include: 

  • Alien smuggling 
  • Document fraud 
  • Domestic violence
  • Crimes of “moral turpitude”
  • Drug of controlled dangerous substances offenses
  • Firearms trafficking
  • Money laundering
  • Fraud
  • Espionage
  • Sabotage
  • Terrorism 
  • Aggravated felonies such as rape and murder

The bar for asylum seekers deportation is far lower. In order to be deported, an asylum seeker needs only fail an initial intake interview called the “Credible or Reasonable Fear Interview” at the discretion of a USCIS asylum officer. If an asylum seeker does not communicate to the satisfaction of their interviewer why they seek to be in the United States to flee persecution, a summary deportation may follow. 

Contact Immigration Lawyers at Lamb & Turner PLLC Today

Whether you or a loved one needs help regarding immigration, you will need lawyers with specific experience with immigration law and who have the right knowledge and resources to assist you. 

The immigration attorneys at Lamb & Turner PLLC are on your side, and we know exactly what to do to help guide you. Additionally, we have worked on countless immigration cases to help our clients realize their dreams of being free from persecution and getting a new start in the United States. We truly understand your situation, and we will do everything in our power to help you! Se habla español. 

Contact us online today to discuss how we can help you.