Understanding the legal status of noncitizens

On Behalf of | Apr 23, 2024 | Immigration |

For newcomers to the U.S., understanding the categories of immigration status can be confusing.

The terms visa holder, asylum seeker, refugee and immigrant all refer to noncitizens but have different legal definitions. Knowing the differences is an important first step in obtaining a green card and being able to find work.

Nonimmigrant visa holders

Nonimmigrant visa holders have temporary authorization to stay in the United States for specific reasons. These reasons might include, tourism, business or education. Those with visas have only the most basic rights, such as free speech and police protection. They sometimes have a right to work, but only under specific visa types.


Immigrants choose to move to the United States to live permanently. They may come for reasons such as family reunification, employment opportunities or fear of violence. Immigrants must go through a legal process to enter and remain in the country.

Asylum seekers

Asylum seekers are immigrants who have fled their home countries and are seeking protection in the United States because they fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. To receive asylum, they must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country.


Refugees are similar to asylum seekers in that they have fled their home countries in fear. The difference is that the U.S. government or the United Nations has recognized their need to leave and given them the official designation of refugees. They have protection in the United States and may receive certain benefits and services to help them rebuild their lives.

Asylum seekers do not need a green card to work in the U.S., but they must apply for and receive employment authorization while their asylum application is pending. Refugees must apply for a green card after one year. Nonimmigrant visa holders may also work in the U.S., but their employment is typically restricted to the specific purpose for which they received the visa.