Understanding the Difference Between Asylum and Refugee Status

Cases of asylum and refugee status tend to get a disproportionate amount of news coverage and attention compared to how often they occur because these cases generally involve high-profile socio-political situations. However, despite the attention they receive, these two terms are often mistakenly used interchangeably.

Understanding the difference between asylum and refugee status in the United States is kind of like the idiom, “All thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs.”  All asylees (aliens to this country that are granted asylum) must meet the same criteria as those with refugee status with regard to their need for protection from persecution, but not all those with refugee status will fall into the same category as asylees.

First let’s take a look at the criteria that these two statuses share. For both asylum-seekers and those seeking refugee status, the individual seeking protection or members of the individual’s immediate family must have faced, or be in danger of facing persecution where they are from based on one or more of several qualifying factors.

If someone is in danger of persecution for their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or status as a member of a particular social group, then they and their immediate family might be eligible for asylum or refugee status.

The most obvious difference between the two terms is based on where the applicant is located at the time of application. This may seem like an insignificant detail but it creates a very big distinction between asylum and refugee status. To apply for refugee status, you cannot be currently located in the United States, whereas in order to apply for asylum, you must be physically present in the US.

The other big distinction is that refugee status can only be given to someone whose case involves special humanitarian interest to the United States. In most cases, the refugee will have already left the country where they were being persecuted, and cannot return because of the danger.

Asylees, on the other hand, must fulfill the “persecution” criteria and have already made it to US soil or a port of entry, no matter their country of origin. Once a person has physically made it to the United States, they cannot apply for refugee status.

Eligibility for employment is a lesser distinction between asylum and refugee status. Whereas refugees will be eligible to immediately apply for work authorization once they enter the US, asylees cannot apply for work authorization at the same time as submitting their asylum application. Once asylum is granted, or if 150 days have passed since the application was completed and no decision has been made, then an asylee or asylum seeker can apply for employment authorization.

The qualifications for refugee status are much stricter than those for asylees, but the US usually grants refugee status to far more than the amount of people who receive asylum each year. However, there is a limit set each year by the president on the number of people who can be granted refugee status, while there is no cap on asylum. The 2015 limit for refugees is 70,000. The number of asylees varies from year to year but generally falls closer to 20,000.

Asylum and refugee status may be distinct designations, but if you or a loved one are in danger of persecution outside the US give us a call to discuss what we can do to help you achieve one of these protections.


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