People often confuse the terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker” when discussing immigration in the US. While asylees and refugees are similar in many ways, it’s important to distinguish the difference when it comes to applying for citizen status. Read on or reach out to an Immigration Attorney in NYC to learn more about the difference between the two.


According to the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, a refugee is defined as any person outside of the country who is unable or unwilling to return to wherever they resided previously because of fear of persecution. Refugees often flee from oppression due to their race, religion, nationality, social status, or political opinion. The immigration act also specifies that people who are forced to abort a pregnancy or become involuntarily sterilized are deemed to also have a justifiable fear of persecution. The term refugee does not include anyone who participated in persecuting others.

Asylum seekers, also called asylees, meet the same criteria as refugees but with one major difference. Asylees are already in the United States and opt to remain here. In order to obtain asylum, the asylee must prove to the government that they fear persecution in their native county. While a refugee can be granted refugee status while outside of the United States, an asylee is only granted asylee status either after entering the country or while seeking admission at a port of entry. Both refugees and asylees have the right to remain in the US indefinitely until they can safely return to their native country, though many choose to stay here. Both can apply for a green card one year after their approved asylee or refugee application.


While refugees and asylum seekers have similar definitions and similar rights, the difference primarily comes into play when applying for status in the United States. Because refugees are outside of the country, they usually must apply for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Once granted with refugee status, the UN will grant the applicant a refugee travel document and helps with their resettlement. Upon arriving in the US, the refugee will receive employment authorization and housing services.

Meanwhile, asylees apply for asylum status directly with the United States government. They must apply within a year of their last arrival to the United States with very limited exceptions, and the American asylee application process is generally more complex than the refugee process with the UN. Asylees also cannot receive employment authorization until their application for asylum is approved.

If you’re a refugee or asylee seeking to apply for a green card or for citizenship, you’ll probably want to speak with an experienced immigration lawyer for more details on the legal process. The Law Office of Cheryl R. David is here for you! Contact us today for a case evaluation with a compassionate and highly experienced attorney.