Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers: How do they differ?

Immigration is, and always has been, a hot-button issue. Emotions run deep and opinions are strong on both sides of the debate. With all the loud voices in the media, it is difficult to distinguish between immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

But each of these is a unique status for people coming to the U.S. and they vary greatly. The differences are important because a person’s status affects how the government processes them.


A migrant is someone who willingly leaves their home country. They do not move because of a threat of violence or possible persecution, but rather seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

What separates migrants from asylum seekers and refugees is that migrants could return to their home country if they like, not fearing for their safety. There are multiple reasons why a migrant might seek to emigrate from their home country, including vocational opportunities, reuniting with family, pursuing an education or seeking diversity.


The U.S. defines a refugee as a person who is outside of their own country and is fearful to return because of violence or persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Only a person who is outside of the United States and is not permanently resettled in another country may apply for refugee status in the U.S.

Importantly, no one who persecuted anyone else for “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” may qualify for refugee status.

Asylum seeker

An asylum status is for anyone who qualifies as a refugee and is already in the U.S. or is trying to enter the U.S. at a port of entry.

Asylum seekers my also bring their spouse and any children under 21 years of age. People with asylum status in the U.S. may apply for a green card a year after gaining their asylum. A green card grants permanent residency in the U.S. and allows the holder the right to work.

The immigration debate is complicated and not likely to go away any time soon. But by knowing a few key terms, a complex process becomes clearer.

Reading levels and word count: All good!

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