Refugees Versus Asylees: What Are the Differences?

Refugees Versus Asylees

Refugees Versus Asylees: What Are the Differences?

Conflict, strife, and violence across the globe often force people to flee their homes and seek shelter and safety abroad. Catastrophic events or influences can lead to an influx of refugee or asylee arrivals worldwide. But there are key differences between the two designations.

In this article, we’ll break down the most important distinctions between refugees and those who seek asylum. Additionally, we’ll detail the general application requirements and processes for both status designations.

If you have questions about either refugee status or asylum proceedings, an expert immigration attorney can help. Contact Nanthaveth & Associates today for a free initial consultation.


It can be a little confusing to discern the differences between refugees and asylum seekers. For instance, an asylee is by default a refugee, yet a refugee will not always meet asylum requirements. That is because asylum requirements are generally more rigorous and specific.

According to section 101(a)(420 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), a refugee is formally defined as any person who is:

  • Outside of their country of origin or has no such nationality;
  • Geographically outside U.S. territory;
  • Unable or unwilling to return to their home country; and/or
  • Unwilling or unable to seek protection from their home country due to fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, social group membership, or political opinion.

While the definition of a refugee is broader, an asylee must fit a more specific category. One of the key differences between the two distinctions is location – is someone abroad or within the U.S.?

Further, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) states that a person may seek asylum if they:

  • Meet the INA’s above definition of a refugee; and
  • Are present in or seeking admission to the United States.

Application and Approval Processes

While similar, the U.S. has different application and approval processes for both potential asylees and refugees. Sometimes, a person seeking asylum has come to America through a humanitarian program. Other times, they have arrived on their own accord and declare asylum once on U.S. soil. Below, we’ll discuss the unique application processes for U.S. refugees and asylum seekers.


The U.S. accepts a specific number of refugees per year. According to the USCIS, any potential refugee must receive a referral for consideration from the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). On its website, the program lists several priority groups for refugee admittance. These priority groups are:

  • ONE:Cases identified and referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a U.S. embassy, or any designated non-governmental organization (NGO)
  • TWO:Any person or group identified as a special humanitarian concern by the U.S. refugee program
  • THREE:Family reunification cases, including spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of persons already approved as a refugee, asylee, or lawful permanent resident (LPR). Family members of current U.S. citizens who previously held refugee or asylee status are also considered.

When applying for refugee status, a person can include their spouse and unmarried children under 21. Occasionally, other family members can be considered. The U.S. does not charge for refugee applications or processing.

During the application process, refugees will likely undergo several interviews to determine eligibility for relocation to the U.S. At that time, necessary security screening processes must be completed, as well as medical exams.

Refugees in the News

It’s important to note that President Donald Trump, since arriving in office, has severely limited admittance of refugees compared with previous caps. For example, the president announced that the U.S. will accept 30,000 refugees in fiscal year (FY) 2019, down from 45,000 the previous year. According to the New York Times, this is the lowest refugee cap set by a president since 1980.

After Approval

Once a refugee’s application is approved, several things occur. The U.S. will help resettle the refugee and any family members, providing support in the realms of housing, employment, and other important areas.

Refugees have clearance to remain in the U.S. indefinitely, unless conditions in their home country change to no longer be dangerous or threatening. During their stay in the U.S., refugees have a path to U.S. citizenship through a green card and lawful permanent resident (LPR) status. One year after receiving refugee status, the holder must apply for a green card.


The application process for asylum differs from that of refugees in several ways. First, a person must be within U.S. territory or at an official point-of-entry in order to seek asylum. Potential asylums cannot request such status from a location outside of the U.S.

Current U.S. asylum laws do not prevent those who illegally entered America from seeking asylum. Yet, this current stipulation is under attack as President Trump seeks to change that rule. We’ve reported on Trump’s attempted asylum policies changes here, here, and here.

The most important part of asylum is the threat or fear of persecution. A person must have “credible fear” that they, or their family, would experience retribution upon return to their home country. Eligible categories are those who have experienced persecution or threats based on their race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. USCIS agents will also make sure that the applicant holds no bars to asylum, like previous criminal or terrorist activity.

Types of Asylum

Two types of asylum applications exist. These are defensive and affirmative asylum. In affirmative asylum, candidates apply directly to the USCIS for consideration. The process is not conducted in immigration court, and will involve an interview with a government agent to assess the credibility of asylum claims. If an affirmative asylum claim is denied, the applicant will likely face removal proceedings. At that time, they would be eligible for the second type of asylum.

In defensive asylum, the applicant is currently in removal proceedings and faces deportation from the U.S. Again, defensive asylum applicants must prove “credible fear.” If a defensive asylum case is approved, the asylee’s status will immediately change and they would no longer face deportation.

After Approval

After the U.S. grants asylee status, a person may apply for work authorization and can begin to build their new life in America. Asylee status provides a pathway to U.S. citizenship: after one year of status, designees must apply for a green card or lawful permanent resident (LPR) status. Once received, green card holders can apply for naturalization after several years.

Work with an Experienced Immigration Attorney

In conclusion, if you have concerns about reunifying your family or applying for asylum, don’t hesitate to contact an expert immigration lawyer. Only an attorney certified by your state’s bar association is qualified to help you with your case. Avoid non-lawyers who say they can help or lawyers who promise specific outcomes or results.

Nanthaveth & Associates is a trusted Austin law firm specializing in all facets of immigration law. Call today to schedule a free initial consultation to discuss your questions, concerns, and plan a path forward.