Asylum Seekers vs Refugees

Refugees and asylum seekers both meet the American Immigration Council’s definition of a refugee: 

A person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution… on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Differences between Refugees and Asylum seekers in DFW


Typically, refugees flee in sizable groups to neighboring countries where the United Nations (UN) has set up a refugee camp. Here, refugees wait several years until they are granted permanent refugee status. At this point, the UN pays for their travel to resettle in the United States or another safe country. Thankfully, in the United States they are immediately eligible for a work permit and are met at the airport by a caseworker. After their long journey, the US immediately places them in a furnished apartment with 6-8 months of resettlement benefits including food stamps, financial assistance, case management, medicaid, and more. By no means are we downplaying the struggle of the refugee. We acknowledge the incredible hardships presented by refugee resettlement camps and by the trauma of the persecution that caused them to flee from their homes. 

Thankfully, however, once refugees arrive in the US they are provided with support and assistance to thrive in America–this system has room to improve, but it’s existence is a blessing.

Asylum Seekers

The reception of refugees into the United States stands in stark contrast to that of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers typically face persecution individually or as a single family unit. Similarly to refugees, asylum seekers have also experienced unimaginable persecution: 75% of the asylum seekers in DASH have been beaten, raped, or tortured in their country. Asylum seekers are in such immediate danger that they have to flee for their lives immediately, often alone and in secret, and find a way to get out of the country. 

Asylum Seekers arrive at the airport alone and if they don’t have a contact in the US, which many do not, are typically unsure of what to do next. They are not greeted with a furnished apartment, the legal ability to work, or social services provided by the federal government–in fact, most states do not provide social services to asylum seekers. Alone, without the help of a translator or case worker, and with very limited finances, asylum seekers are faced with the long and arduous legal process of filing for asylum. Asylum seekers in DFW often wait for 2 years or more before they receive their work permit and social security card. 

Until their asylum case is granted, which can sometimes take several more years, they remain ineligible for any federal social services.

How are these people supposed to survive during this wait? This is why many of these educated, hard-working, courageous victims of injustice, who come here for safety, end up on our streets. DASH exists to stand in this gap. 

Differences between Refugees and Asylum seekers in DFW

  Refugees Asylum Seekers
Location applied for status Overseas, neighboring country After entering U.S.
With who In groups Alone
From where Congo, Burma, Iraq, Afganistan, Somoli Ethiopia, Congo, Egypt, China, Pakistan, Central America, Burundi, other African countries
Time since persecution Years, waiting in refugee camp Months
Upon Arrival    
Travel Arranged by UNHCR Personal Experience
Entry Met at airport by caseworker Arrives alone, often not knowing where to go or what to do next
Status Refugee status Various visas (visitor, student, etc.) OR cross border and plea asylum there.*
Housing Government gives a furnished apartment None
Permanence Yes TBD
Eligible for    
Work permit Yes, immediately No, wait about 2 years from entry (time varies)
Social Security Card Yes, immediately No, not until work permit
Food Stamps Yes No, not unless they have small children
Paid housing Yes, for up to 8 months No, never
Financial support (USRP) Yes (thousands of dollars) No, never
Orientation, job-development, acculteration, and ESL Yes No, not until granted asylum
Case Management Yes No, not until granted asylum
Medicaid Yes No, not until granted asylum

*Once asylum application is received, people seeking asylum continue to be legally present, even after visa expires.

Disclaimer: This chart does not claim to be a professional research study. Some generalizations are made from the DASH Director’s personal observation of several hundred refugees and asylum in DFW over the past 8 years.

Photo Credit: Kim Leeson

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