U.S. Law Center

3 differences between refugees and asylum seekers

Countless people enter the United States each year in search of better opportunities and living conditions, and many have the common goal of escaping danger and violence in their home countries. The government typically classifies immigrants with such motives either as refugees or asylum seekers, but the two terms are not interchangeable.

What is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker, and why does it matter? There are several differentiations that are important for legal considerations. Here are three for immigrants to keep in mind. 

1. Legal evaluation

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the major distinction between refugees and asylum seekers is whether their claims have undergone legal evaluation. Refugee classification is for individuals who have previously completed an application, had their claims reviewed and received approval. Those whose claims have not undergone evaluation or received approval, on the other hand, are classified as asylum seekers.

2. Status upon entry

In addition to the difference in legal evaluation, status at the time of entry differentiates refugees from asylum seekers. Refugees enter the United States legally with immigrant status, whereas asylum seekers seek entry without prior legal approval. In some cases, asylum seekers may already be in the United States when they seek legal recognition. Whether or not an immigrant receives approval at the time of entry determines, in part, whether he or she is a refugee or asylum seeker.

3. Rights within the U.S.

Because of the difference in legal classification, refugees and asylum seekers also have different legal rights. Because refugees enter the country legally with prior approval, they have more rights than an asylum seeker typically will. Asylum seekers will be unable to apply for most jobs and will probably be unable to apply for public benefits and other resources that would be available to those who have attained refugee status. 

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