What Is the Difference Between Immigrants, Refugees, and Asylees?

With the deterioration of protections for refugees, asylees, and immigrants it is imperative now more than ever that we understand domestic laws and human rights laws when advocating for youth and families impacted by ICE and US Border Patrol. However, figuring out where to start can be daunting. In this article, we will break down what it means to be an asylee, a refugee, and an immigrant. We will share a real-life story of someone from each population and unpack their individual rights and resources. 

Let’s start with the differences between an asylee, an immigrant, and a refugee. These words, while often get clumped together, come with unique resources and legal protections; understanding the differences is crucial.

What is a refugee, asylee, or immigrant?

  • Asylee: someone who is seeking protection in another country but whose claim for refugee status is still pending
  • Refugee: someone who a sponsor has invited to come to the United States. Upon entrance, refugees are granted a green card and can apply for citizenship after five years.
  • Immigrant: someone who comes into the US but is not able to apply for or is denied asylum due to a fear of persecution deemed not well-founded
Now, let’s meet three young adults who maintain refugee, asylee, or immigrant status. 

A Refugee's Story: Maiv

Maiv is a Hmong refugee from Laos. She came to the US when she was 18 after being sponsored by a sizeable Christian-based organization. Maiv was placed within a small town in Oregon and given temporary housing. Afterward, Maiv felt terrified to be on her own while struggling with depression, isolation, and dealing with past trauma from the turmoil in her home country.  

Maiv's Rights

Maiv can apply for Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) to receive cash assistance and job training to get on her feet. She can also apply for citizenship in five years, and if she has any family, Maiv can apply to bring them over. To do so, Maiv can fill out an I-730 application to bring over a spouse or dependents under 21. She may also fill out an  I-130 application to petition relatives to come over. However, she will have to endure long wait times.

Maiv's Resources

Organizations such as Mercy Corps, IRCO, the International Refugee Assistance Project, and more are available to help Maiv navigate her life as a refugee in the United States. She may also choose to sign up for a sponsor family to support her through this challenging process. Upon entering the US, Maiv should have been assigned a caseworker to help her apply for benefits and get into more stable housing. Portland, and other cities across the country, also host support groups for refugees experiencing displacement and feelings of isolation. 

An Asylee's Story: Jack

Jack is an asylum seeker from Trinidad. When Jack was eight years old, he came to the United States after a terrorist bombing ravaged his hometown. Jack’s life was in danger as he was a target of extremist groups due to his ties to the United States.

Jack moved in with his father and grew up in Queens, New York. He spent his formative years riding his bike and playing basketball in the big city. After high school, Jack served in the United States Army. However, Jack never had a clear path to citizenship. When he made a mistake (and served time for that mistake), he was deported back to a country where extremist groups would target him for his accent and military background. 

Jack's Rights

For others in Jack’s situation, you have the right to non-refoulment. This French term comes from the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which states that countries can not return individuals seeking asylum to their country of origin if their lives are in danger by returning. Jack should have never been sent back since his military background, and American accent put his life at risk. 

Jack's Resources

Jack can apply for asylum by filling out an I-589 form. He could use this form to show that he fled persecution because he was part of a social group. Jack will not be appointed a lawyer unless he can afford one or an organization takes on his case pro-bono (for free). With only a 10% chance of approval, Jack has almost no chance without legal representation. Luckily, organizations throughout the country specialize in working with individuals like Jack and advocating for the justice he deserves. 

An Immigrant's Story: Matteo

Matteo is an immigrant from El Salvador. He came to the US, fleeing the violence in his hometown, and in search of employment to help his family survive. Matteo was recruited to work for a large farming corporation, but had his passport confiscated immediately, and was forced to endure inhumane working conditions and unfair compensation. 

He was told if he complained, his employer would report him and his family to ICE. One day police pulled over Matteo for no notable reason. They then called ICE, who initiated deportation. Matteo was forced to leave his family and return to El Salvador.

Matteo's Rights

Matteo should be given the opportunity to apply for asylum. However, due to the recent policies coming from the White House, that directly violate the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Matteo is unable to apply for asylum because he is from Central America. Matteo also fits the definition of an individual experiencing human trafficking, which like Jack’s case, renders Matteo’s deportation to El Salvador a direct violation of nonrefoulment

Matteo's Resources

Matteo could apply for a T-Visa as he fits the legal definition of a trafficked individual. A T-Visa grants immigration protection to individuals who have experienced trafficking and are willing to provide information to the authorities on those who trafficked them. Matteo could also seek pro bono legal counsel due to the fact he was profiled by police and wrongfully pulled over and detained.  

Bringing It All Together

If you feel a sense of frustration while reading these stories, then…good! Channel that frustration and turn it into productivity. The US continues to break international human rights treaties and carry out harm on the individuals we are supposed to protect. We need to start holding our country accountable to the treaties we have signed and continue to advocate for the protection of refugee, asylee, and immigrant communities.

How To Get Involved

If you want to get involved, you can:
  •  Donate your time or resources to nonprofits directly working with refugee, asylee, and immigrant communities directly
  • Sign up to sponsor a refugee
  • Speak out against policies that directly harm communities, for example:
    • The Trump administration’s ban on asylum seekers from Central America
    • The public charge ruling that limits the benefits and supports immigrant families can receive
  • Take time to welcome individuals into your community and support small businesses that are run by immigrants, refugees, and asylees
We all have a unique role to play in advocating for and implementing the kind of change that can lead to a more equitable society. 

About The Author

Mia Prohaska

Mia Prohaska is a former Program Manager at the Youth Era Clackamas Drop Center. Mia is a Fulbright scholar who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Masters in Social Work and certification in Global Human Rights. Mia is deeply passionate about advocating for refugee, asylee, and immigrant communities.

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