Frequently Asked Questions

What are the differences between Immigrants, Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrant Workers in the United States?


Immigrants: ​ The broad designation for people who leave their native countries to live permanently in the U.S. They may have had a choice – immigrating to the U.S. in search of a better life – or they may have been forced to leave their native countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution and violence. Immigrants can be here either legally or illegally. Half the immigrants who reach the U.S. are considered to be illegal immigrants, that is they have come without government permission or stayed beyond the termination date of a visa. An illegal immigrant in the U.S. is sometimes referred to as “undocumented.”

Refugees: ​ These are immigrants who have been forced to flee their native countries and cannot return safely. Refugees flee because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted for their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Persecution can include violence or even torture. Foreign aggression, internal conflicts, and massive violations of human rights are other reasons people seek refuge in the U.S. Refugee status and its protections must be granted by U.S. officials in another country before the applicant may enter the U.S. Refugees are given permanent residency a year after their arrival and can apply for U.S. citizenship five years later.

Asylum Seekers: ​ An immigrant begins the process of seeking asylum by first citing a credible fear of harm in his or her country of origin, and then making a formal application for the right to remain in the U.S. He or she is considered an asylum seeker until the application has been concluded. This process may take up to two years or more. Once the asylum application is received, a work permit is granted. Having legal status as an asylum seeker gives an immigrant protection until the claim for asylum is accepted or rejected.  If the claim for asylum is rejected, the person is subject to deportation.

– photograph by Terry Allen
Migrant Workers: ​ Unlike immigrants, migrant workers generally do not have the intention to remain in the U.S. permanently, though they may stay for several years. They are here to earn money for themselves and to send back to their families in their home countries. Migrant workers are undocumented and without the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Migrant dairy farm workers in Vermont and New Hampshire have been routinely picked up and detained. They have no legal way to apply for the right to work in the U.S. since dairy work is not seasonal and therefore isn’t covered under existing work visa rules.

What is the USCRI?

United States Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, Vermont (USCRI): ​ Based in Colchester Vermont, this is one of eight federal field offices that promote refugee and immigrant rights. Its work includes reception and placement, resettlement and case management for housing; and other support services such as employment counseling, English language training, and digital literacy. USCRI also assists New Americans with temporary cash assistance until employment is found, citizenship classes, and health and wellness access.