Refugee vs. Asylee

June 2020

The common definition of refugee, which would include Asylees, is, “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” Both groups can apply for citizenship 4 years after they achieve their status, and are eligible for public assistance. Refugees and Asylees share many legal and factual statuses, there are distinctions.






Individuals outside the U.S. are extensively vetted before coming to the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Immigration Service makes the determination whether to approve individuals for resettlement in the U.S.

Enters the U.S. without legal status, at a port of entry or otherwise. Includes individuals who arrive in the U.S. as workers, students, vacationers or other legal status and then seek asylum. Application for asylum must be made within one year of date of entry into U.S.


Gets a work permit immediately upon arriving as a refugee. Must apply for a green card 1 year after arrival.

May apply for a work permit after asylum is granted (which can take a year or more after application for asylum is filed). May apply for a green card 1 year after asylum granted.

Assimilation Support

U.S. Department of State and DHS provide funding to nonprofit agencies for assistance



Set by President in consultation with Congress.

None. However, steps taken recently to severely limit the number of asylum seekers admitted at the southern border

Governing Law

Refugee Act of 1980

Immigration and Nationality Act. 8 USC Sec. 1158


United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention
 1967 Protocol Relating to Status of Refugees

Facts You Should Know

  • The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 created a preferential category of “refugee” for immigration.
  • The Refugee Act of 1980 amended the law “to provide a permanent and systematic procedure for the admission to the United States of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the U.S., and to provide comprehensive and uniform provisions for the effective resettlement and absorption of admitted refugees.”
  • In the fiscal year ending in September, 2016, the U.S. admitted 84,995 refugees.
  • USCIS received an estimated 139,801 affirmative asylum applications in 2017, 21 percent more than the year before and close to a 150 percent increase since 2014.

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• The administration announced that it would accept only 18,000 refugees during FY2020, down from the current limit of 30,000 for FY2019 and a fraction of the 110,000 the previous administration said should be allowed into the United States in FY 2016.

Affirmative, Defensive, and Total Asylees by Country of Nationality, 2017