refugees and asylum seekers

Every year, thousands of people make the decision to leave their home countries in search of a better future. While some choose to leave their perfectly safe lives in search for new adventures and opportunities, others flee in search of safety and security.

Refugees and asylum seekers are the latter type of immigrants. They’re forced to flee their native countries to escape persecution or violence, seek protection from dangers and find a better life in the United States or another country.

Although you may see the terms refugee and asylum seeker used interchangeably, they are in fact two unique types of people who are seeking different goals or have taken different steps in the immigration process.

It’s important to know which group you fall into to understand your rights and legal responsibilities in the United States.


A refugee is someone who has had to flee their country due to war, persecution or the inability of their home government to protect them. In many cases refugees are seeking safety after their homes have been caught between two warring factions.

When a refugee flees their home country, they must apply for refugee status with an official entity, such as the United States government or the United Nations Refugee Agency. The governmental organization then determines whether a person meets the refugee criteria.

Once someone is granted refugee status, they are afforded legal protections by the United Nations Refugee Agency, or UNHCR. This protection includes the right to work and receive housing and education. Moreover, refugees can bring immediate family with them to their destination country.

Refugees to the U.S. must seek refugee status outside of the United States. They are not allowed to enter the country until their application has been accepted and they have been given permission to travel.

Asylum Seeker

An asylum seeker is also escaping dangers like war or persecution in their home country. However, contrary to refugees, asylum seekers must apply for protection in the destination country. This means they can only apply for asylum if they arrive at a port of entry or cross the border of that country.

The United States has a legal obligation to provide protection to those who qualify as asylum seekers. However, seeking asylum can be a lengthy process that involves filing a complex application, providing evidence, finding a sponsor and waiting, often a year or more, for a court hearing.

If the application is accepted, the asylum seeker receives asylee status. The status protects the asylee from being deported and eventually may grant them the right to work or apply for permanent citizenship.

Refugee Rights

Refugees residing in the United States are usually granted certain social, economic and cultural rights, such as:

  • Eligibility for employment
  • Access to education
  • Cultural orientation
  • Eligibility to travel outside of the U. S. (with a Refugee Travel Document)
  • Financial loans
  • Access to healthcare
  • Eligibility for nutritional, medical and cash assistance

After one year in the U.S. a refugee may apply for legal permanent residency, also known as a green card. Four years after obtaining a green card, they may apply to become an American citizen.

Asylum Seeker Rights

Once someone has applied for asylum, they do not have the legal right to work in the U.S. According to policy changes that went into effect in late August 2020, asylum seekers can apply for an employment authorization document (EAD) 365 days after filing their asylum application (up from 150 days).

However, a recent court case, CASA v. Wolf, put a temporary hold on some of the policy changes for certain applicants. There are many uncertainties in the process currently due to policy changes during the Trump Administration and the ensuing legal challenges, which is one of the reasons many asylum seekers are reaching out to experienced immigration lawyers for advice and assistance.

Asylum seekers and asylees may not be eligible to receive the same types of assistance refugees receive, but many of these rules are state-specific. Some asylum seekers in Minnesota may be eligible for certain benefits. You should check the Minnesota Department of Human Services website or contact one of our referral counselors to schedule an appointment with an immigration attorney.

Asylees have the right to apply for family members abroad to join them. One year after their asylum status has been officially granted, asylum seekers may apply for permanent residency. If they become a legal permanent resident, asylees must wait another four years before they can apply for citizenship.

Asylum seekers can be disqualified from becoming asylees and be deported to their country of origin if they are convicted of a crime while their application status is pending.

Do You Need a Lawyer to Help You Establish Your Legal Status?

If you are a refugee or an asylum seeker and need help in maintaining your status, accessing resources, reuniting with your loved ones or pursuing permanent residency, you may benefit from speaking with an immigration lawyer.

Although the Minnesota Lawyer Referral and Information Service (MNLRIS) doesn’t provide legal advice, our referral counselors can help you schedule a consultation with an experienced immigration lawyer near you. Call us at (612) 752-6699 or fill out our form to get started.