What is the difference between refugee and asylum status?

refugee and asylum status statue of liberty U.S.

When an individual leaves their country of nationality because they are unable or unwilling to return as they face persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, ethnicity, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion they will apply for refugee or asylum status in the U.S. for protection. It is common for individuals to be confused about the differences between refugee and asylum status in the U.S. Essentially, refugees and asylees essentially have the same rights despite their statuses. However, refugees apply for protection outside of the U.S. while asylees apply from within the U.S. Several other distinctions separate refugee and asylum status. If you need help understanding which status you may qualify for in the U.S., contact a qualified New Jersey Immigration Lawyer who can help you acquire protection. 

What differentiates refugee status from asylum status in the U.S.?

There are several distinctions between refugee and asylum status in the U.S. As mentioned above, one of the main differences between the two is that refugees apply outside of the U.S. At the same time, an asylee is a refugee who applied when they are already present in the U.S. Additionally, there is a distinction in the application process for each status.


Under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), there are certain criteria and established priorities for individuals that seek protection in the U.S. as a group of special humanitarian concern.

(P-1) Top priority: This status is assigned to individuals who have been directly referred by the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR), the U.S. embassy, or other non-governmental organizations.

(P-2): This is assigned to special groups with humanitarian concerns.

(P-3): This is assigned to families for cases of reunification.

Individuals seeking protection with P-1, P-2, or P-3 priority are eligible for refugee status and will proceed with a pre-screening process provided by the Resettlement Support Center. Once that is completed individuals will be interviewed by a USCIS, undergo several security checks, and receive a medical exam. These measures help to determine eligibility for resettlement in the U.S. If an individual is approved through this process they will be assisted with housing and employment arrangements. Refugees will arrive in the U.S. and receive employment authorization. If desired, they can request permission to travel outside of the country. Furthermore, individuals can apply one year after they have been approved for refugee status for a green card which would grant them lawful permanent status in the U.S. Additionally after they have resided in the U.S. for four years as a refugee, they can apply for U.S. citizenship.


The application process for asylum seekers is different. Asylum seekers are required to apply for asylum one year after residing in the U.S. However, under certain circumstances, individuals may have reasonable exceptions to the one-year rule. These individuals may apply through a USCIS asylum officer or defensively in the event of a removal proceeding. Individuals must an application for asylum and withholding of removal, Form I-589. Spouses and children may qualify for derivative asylum status under the principal applicant. Asylees, unlike refugees, have to apply for work authorization. However, they may be granted a work permit depending on their circumstances. Ultimately, asylum status has the same criteria as refugee status when it comes to acquiring a green card and U.S. citizenship.

If you need help with applying for refugee or asylum status, reach out to one of our skilled and knowledgeable team members.

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