Common Questions About Asylum | Refugees

People are often confused about the difference between asylum seekers and refugees, since these terms are often used together. The main difference is that someone seeking asylum — or permission to stay in the United States to avoid persecution in their own country — must make this request at a U.S. port of entry or while they are physically here.

  • United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) defines a refugee someone outside the United States who: 
  • has been persecuted or has a legitimate fear of future persecution in their country;
  • qualifies for admission to  the United States;
  • meets the requirements for humanitarian concern; and
  • has not yet resettled permanently in another country.

To come to the United States as a refugee, someone must be referred to to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for consideration. He or she must then complete an application and be questioned abroad by a USCIS officer who will then decide whether he or she qualifies for refugee resettlement here.

If the applicant is approved, he or she has a medical exam, a cultural orientation, assistance with their travel plans, and loans to cover their travel to the United States. They may also qualify for certain benefits once they get here.

Here are more answers to common questions about people with refugee status in the United States.

Do refugees have passports?

No. If you have refugee status in the United States, you cannot have a U.S. passport. Only U.S. citizens have the right to hold them.

To travel to any other country if you have refugee status in the United States, you must get a Refugee Travel Document before you leave. This document will allow you to re-enter the United States when you come back. In most cases, travel to the country where you claimed persecution is discouraged, although there are some circumstances in which this may be allowed. If you choose to return to the country where you claimed persecution, you must be able to explain how and why you were able to do so without being harmed.

What are the rights of a refugee?

If you have refugee status in the United States, you also have certain rights. One of them is the right to work here as soon as you arrive. This is because Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, will be filed for you so you can get an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). In the meantime, you will be able to use the Form I-94, Arrival-Departure Record that you got when you arrived as proof of your permission to work here.

You will also have the right to travel within and outside the United States (see the explanation above) and the right to apply for a Green Card (lawful permanent residency) in the United States after you have been here for one year.

As a refugee, you must also abide by all U.S. laws including any applicable immigration laws; and pay any relevant local, state and federal taxes.

What does asylum mean for refugees?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines a refugee as someone “outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling” to go back  due to persecution or valid fear of persecution “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

However, the U.S. government will not classify you as a refugee if you:

  • ordered,
  • encouraged,
  • facilitated,
  • or otherwise engaged in the persecution of any person on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion in any other way.

Like a grant of asylum, a grant of refugee status allows the recipient to remain in the United States and gives them certain rights, such as the right to apply for lawful permanent residency.