Seeking Asylum: How Does It Differ From Being A Refugee?

Seeking Asylum: How Does It Differ From Being A Refugee?

Have you been displaced from your country?

You might be interested to know the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker.

Here at The San Diego Immigration Law Office we frequently are asked about asylum law and asylum cases, and how asylum differs from refugee status. 

In this article, we will explain the difference between both and also provide important information you need to know to apply for asylum.

Let´s begin.

The terms refugee and asylum seeker are often used interchangeably. Both terms refer to a person who has been displaced from their country to escape persecution, war, or a natural disaster.

An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection and claims to be a refugee, but whose application for refugee status is still pending.

The United Nations defines a refugee as someone who is outside his/her home country and is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

Experience persecution or have a well-founded fear of future persecution due to past actions (e.g., opposing the regime, fleeing your country because you are part of an ethnic minority, or facing religious persecution).

Also it is important to note that someone who ordered, incited, aided, or otherwise participated in the persecution of anyone on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion is not considered a refugee.

For the legal definition of refugee, see section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

Both refugees and asylum seekers must meet certain requirements and make a formal application for asylum to gain asylum status.

When applying for asylum, a person must prove they have a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Fearing persecution at the hands of your government is not enough to be considered an asylum seeker.

What is asylum?

In the US, asylum is an immigration status that allows foreign nationals to remain in the country after they have been granted asylum by the government of the United States. It also allows them to move freely within the country and to apply for a work permit.

There are two ways that asylum seekers can apply for asylum status in the US.

The first is to arrive at a port of entry, such as an airport or border crossing, and declare asylum right away. The asylum seeker will then go through “credible fear” screening where they must demonstrate their fear of persecution due to one of the five grounds mentioned above.

If they pass their credible fear interview, they will be released on parole while their asylum application is pending with a hearing before an immigration judge. They must appear for this hearing or risk being deported back to their country of origin.

The asylum seeker can apply for work authorization while in the US, and if asylum is granted, they will be able to get a work permit through the asylum office and eventually legal permanent residency..

The second way asylum seekers can apply for asylum is after entering the US without inspection and applying for asylum within 1 year of arrival.

If asylum is denied and the applicant does not leave voluntarily within 30 days, they are considered “out of status”. Rather than being deported, asylum seekers can file a motion to reopen their asylum application with the Immigration Court. This then triggers an asylum hearing at an immigration court. They will need a good lawyer if they want to have any chance at getting asylum after this first denial.

How asylum seekers can receive asylum

Many asylum seekers have been allowed to stay in a country while they apply for asylum, but there is no guarantee they will be accepted.

The process to acquire asylum status can take years as asylum applicants go through interviews, document submission, and court hearings before receiving their asylum status.

What´s the Asylum Procedure?


To simplify the process, the asylum procedure consists of two parts. The first part is determining the asylum seeker’s credibility (whether or not it is reasonable that they fear persecution due to one of the five grounds mentioned above).

An asylum officer will conduct an asylum interview and determine if asylum can be granted. Asylum officers are trained law enforcement officials who are authorized to make rulings on asylum cases.

If asylum is denied, asylum seekers can appeal to an Immigration Judge within 30 days of the asylum officer’s decision. Immigration Judges are experienced in immigration law and have authority over asylum cases. During your court hearing an Immigration Judge will again evaluate your credibility.

If asylum is granted during the asylum interview or at an asylum hearing, you will effectively have gained asylum status. 

After reviewing your credibility either at an asylum appointment or hearing in front of an Immigration Judge, the interviewer or Immigration Judge will then hear your story further. This will be the second part of your asylum process. At this hearing, asylum seekers can present evidentiary documents, witness testimony, and expert opinions to prove that they are eligible for asylum. They can also call witnesses to testify on their behalf.

The asylum hearing is usually held within 90 days of the asylum application being “administratively complete” (when USCIS has all needed asylum application documents). If asylum seekers are detained during their asylum procedure, they have a right to a bond hearing, which decides whether or not asylum seekers will be released from custody while awaiting their asylum hearing.

If asylum is granted, asylum seekers receive asylum status, which will provide them with a work permit and eventual legal residency. 

Benefits of getting an immigration lawyer before you apply for asylum in the US.

The asylum application process can be complex, but asylum cases are not hopeless. The law provides a variety of ways to demonstrate that an applicant meets the definition of an asylum-seeker.

Getting expert asylum advice from a lawyer with experience in asylum law is usually essential for getting all the necessary evidence and paperwork together in an organized way and putting together a persuasive asylum application.

How an immigration attorney can help?

Attorney Client Handshake

Immigration attorneys can help asylum seekers prepare and submit the asylum application as well as argue on their behalf the law in front of an Immigration Judge.

A lawyer can also gather evidence of their asylum claims such as medical documentation about any mental illnesses or physical disabilities that may have been caused by the asylum applicant’s persecution in his country of origin, reports documenting instances and patterns of discrimination against asylum-seekers, asylum-seeker interviews, asylum application forms, and asylum applicant’s personal statement.

Tips on how to find an immigration lawyer that is right for you.

There are several steps involved in the asylum application process, and asylum seekers need immigration lawyers with substantial experience handling asylum cases. 

An asylum seeker’s situation may be complicated by the fact that they may lack fluency in English or any other language commonly spoken in the United States.

The law provides a variety of ways to demonstrate that an asylum applicant meets the definition of asylum-seeker. Here are some factors to keep in mind when choosing a lawyer:

  1. A lawyer’s educational background in asylum law is important. Finding a skilled lawyer is crucial for asylum seekers with complicated asylum cases since an asylum applicant’s personal history and country conditions are thoroughly examined during the process of adjudicating their application. US asylum laws are very complex; therefore, asylum applicants should look for an attorney who understands these laws well and is experienced in handling asylum cases.
  2. It is important to consider language and cultural issues when looking for lawyers. Asylum seekers sometimes cannot communicate effectively with asylum officers or immigration judges, so a lawyer who speaks the same native language as an asylum applicant may be able to help him/her get his/her points across more clearly.
  3. Asylum applicants may also want to ask the lawyer in advance whether he/she is familiar with the asylum office where the asylum applicant wants to file his/her application.
  4. The cost of hiring a good lawyer is well worth the investment. Some asylum applicants may have trouble affording legal fees since they have to pay for lawyers out of their own pockets.

Here at The San Diego Immigration Law Office, we have experience handling asylum cases for asylum applicants from all over the world. We can help asylum applicants with complicated asylum cases since their personal history and country conditions will be thoroughly examined during the process of adjudicating their asylum applications.

Regarding our fees, we have flexible payments to help you on your way. We look forward to working with you in achieving your goals and dreams.


Every day, many people make the most difficult decision of their lives: to escape the persecution they face in their home country and seek asylum in a foreign land. Behind them they leave everything they know and love,  their homes, their friends, even members of their own family.

People seeking asylum are people looking for safety. Asylum seekers are not criminals; they leave their homelands because something in their countries threatens them and they cannot find safety if they stay.

In general, both refugees and asylum seekers come to the United States legally. Asylum seekers arrive at an airport or seaport and request asylum after presenting immigration officers with documentation of their claim. Ultimately, asylum seekers must show that they are truly asylum seekers fleeing persecution and not simply unlawfully entering immigrants.

Seeking asylum can be complicated and the risk of denial is high. Consulting with an immigration lawyer before filing for asylum may help you avoid potential mistakes that could lead to your application being denied.

The San Diego Immigration Law Office team can help asylum seekers determine if they are eligible to apply for asylum. And if your asylum application is denied, we’ll take the time to discuss the reasons why and what you will need to do next.

If you or someone you know would like to apply for asylum in the United States, contact us at The San Diego Immigration Law Officnow for a comprehensive evaluation of your asylum application situation and instructions on how to proceed with your asylum application process.