As part of humanitarian provisions under U.S. immigration law, thousands of refugees come into the United States every year. These are people fleeing persecution in various forms from all around the world. This article explains what the legal definition of a refugee is, who is eligible for U.S. refugee status, and how to submit a refugee application to the United States.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Updated September 26, 2023
Who Is a Refugee?
U.S. immigration law protects foreigners with a fear of persecution in their home countries. If remaining in or returning to your home country would be unsafe, you may be eligible for refugee immigration status.
If you’re a foreign national outside of the United States, you will be eligible to apply for refugee status. If your circumstances match the guidelines for refugee status — but you are already in the United States or at a port of entry to the United States — you may submit an asylum application instead at a U.S. immigration court.
Each fiscal year, the United States accepts refugees from over 60 countries worldwide. The current annual refugee cap is 125,000 individuals. In the last few years, most U.S. refugees have come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Myanmar, Sudan, Iraq, and Bhutan.
The U.S. government requires refugees to apply for U.S. permanent resident status after spending one year in the United States. Asylees are not required to apply for green cards but may also choose to apply after a year if they wish.
Note: As a refugee, you may receive indefinite employment authorization in the United States.
Who Is Eligible for Refugee Status in the U.S.?
The U.S. government responds to human rights concerns by granting refugee status to foreigners. You must be outside of the United States to qualify for refugee status. Typically, refugees have already fled persecution in their home countries and would feel extremely unsafe returning.
To be eligible for refugee status, the persecution you face must be on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. You should review the full legal definition of a refugee from the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
You typically need to receive a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) before you can receive refugee status. USCIS lists the U.S. government’s current refugee processing priorities. U.S. embassies and specially trained international organizations work to refer refugee applicants.
In some instances, refugee applicants can begin the application process without a referral. Usually, this exempt category includes close relatives of people who have received refugee status or asylum in the United States. Applicants belonging to specific groups with designated direct access to the refugee program may also be exempt from the referral requirement.
How To Submit a Refugee Application to the U.S.
To become a U.S. refugee, you’ll likely need a referral. Referrals come from U.S. embassies or international organizations. Typically, applicants work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office closest to them. After receiving your referral, you’ll need to prepare for the refugee interview. The organization that refers you will offer you interview guidance.
How To Get a Refugee Referral
You’ll need to register with the UNHCR office in your local country to receive a referral. If you live in a refugee camp, UNHCR office representatives may be on site. If not, you should locate the nearest office in your country and plan to visit.
Gather evidence to support your refugee application. Prepare identification documents (ID), including your passport, driver’s license, birth certificate, or other forms of ID. UNHCR understands you might not have been able to bring these documents with you when you fled. They may help you. Note that you won’t need to have your documents translated in advance.
You won’t be able to directly ask UNHCR to recommend you for resettlement in the United States. UNHCR considers sending refugees to various safe countries. If you have an important reason, you may be able to indicate a specific country where you would prefer not to resettle.
How To Prepare for the USCIS Refugee Interview
If you have received your referral or are exempt, you can begin completing your refugee application. If UNHCR refers your case to the United States, they will schedule an appointment for you at a Refugee Support Center (RSC). The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration oversees the operations of several RSCs.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), employs USCIS refugee officers. These refugee officers are the ones who determine if your refugee application will be approved or denied. They will interview you to determine whether to approve your refugee application. Your RSC will manage your case and help you prepare for your refugee interview.
Your RSC will help you gather your supporting documents and discuss the application process and requirements. They will also try to verify your identity and conduct security checks on you. The U.S. government requires security checks for all refugee applicants.
When interviewing with a USCIS refugee officer, be prepared to explain details about your life and persecution in your country of origin. You should also discuss your family and if they have also faced persecution. The USCIS officer will conduct background checks on you to make sure you don’t present a threat to the United States.
What Happens After You Receive a Decision on Your Refugee Application?
If USRAP approves your refugee application, your RSC will schedule medical appointments for you and your family members to screen for public health risks. They will also screen you for physical or mental disorders and severe substance addictions.
If you pass the medical screening, your RSC will help prepare you to integrate into the United States and arrange your travel. They’ll also refer you to a Refugee Resettlement Agency (RRA) in the United States, which will help you settle into the country. The Department of Health and Human Services also assists incoming refugees.
If USCIS denied your application, you may request a review of the denial. You should submit the request to your RSC within 90 days of receiving your rejection. You must write the request in English and you can consult a lawyer to help.
Refugees are legally required to apply for permanent resident status one year after receiving their U.S. refugee status. Asylum seekers are not required to apply for U.S. green cards after a year of asylum status in the United States, but they may choose to do so.