Immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers: What’s the difference?

Immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers: What’s the difference?

Immigration is a perennially hot topic in the United States. We often hear buzzwords from politicians and the media that we don’t fully understand. With so much muddled language around the issue, it’s important to understand the terms used surrounding it.

Immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are all people who leave their home countries seeking a better future. While we hear all three in the same context, each has a very different meaning.


An immigrant is someone who chooses to leave their home country and live somewhere else. In the United States, an immigrant must go through a long process of vetting, paperwork and documentation to become a lawful permanent resident, known as a green-card holder.

The reason immigrants come to the U.S. vary. Some common reasons include seeking an education, looking for employment or joining family who already live here.

The American immigration system can be difficult. It’s estimated there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the Unites States.


Refugees are people forced to leave their home countries because of war, violence, persecution, famine or other dire conditions. Refugees are unable to return to their homes until the situation there becomes more tenable. The civil war in Syria, for example, has created a refugee crisis, with millions forced to flee.

Government entities, like United Nations Refugee Agency, determine who meets the definition of a refugee. People who obtain refugee status are granted certain protections under international law, and refugees in the U.S. may get special opportunities to become naturalized citizens.

Asylum seekers

An asylum seeker, or asylee, like a refugee, is a person who must flee their home country because of persecution, violence or other well-founded fear. Unlike a refugee, an asylum seeker does not apply for protected status outside of the country.

In the U.S., those seeking asylum apply for protection either from within the country or at a port of entry like a border crossing. Not every asylum seeker will earn refugee status, but every refugee starts out as an asylum seeker.