Under U.S. law, a refugee is someone who lives outside of the U.S. and is seen by the government as having a special humanitarian concern. They must be able to prove that they were persecuted or that they fear they will be persecuted due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or their involvement in a social group in their country. They cannot be someone who ordered, assisted in, or participated in the persecution of someone for the reasons previously listed. (1)
A refugee must receive a referral from the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) in order to be considered a refugee. (1)
Every year, immigration law requires Executive Branch officials to review the situation and discuss whether the reasons for believing the individual seeking refuge are justified by U.S. humanitarian concern. After the consultation with cabinet representatives and Congress, the decision is drafted and presented to the President to be signed. No refugees can enter the U.S. until the Presidential Determination has been signed. (2)
Processing priorities are established annually to determine which of the world’s refugees are of special humanitarian concern to the U.S. If an applicant can fulfill a processing priority, they are able to interview with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) official. The current priorities are:
- Priority 1: Cases are identified and referred to the program by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a U.S. Embassy, or designated non-governmental organization (NGO).
- Priority 2: Groups identified by the U.S. refugee program as being of special humanitarian concern to the U.S.
- Priority 3: Cases where someone is trying to reunite with their family. Parents, spouses, and children under the age of 21 can participate. (2)
The eligibility of a refugee is determined through an interview with a specially-trained USCIS officer. The interview is designed to obtain information about the applicant’s request for refuge, and if they are eligible for resettlement in the U.S. by determining :
- If the applicant qualifies under a designated processing priority.
- If they meet the definition of a refugee.
- Confirm that they are not settled in a third country.
The USCIS will consider the conditions of the applicant’s home country, and will evaluate the applicant’s credibility. They will confirm that security checks are complete, but also reviewed and analyzed. (3)
Coming to the U.S.
Once approved, they will receive a medical examination along with cultural orientation, help with their travel plans, and a loan for their travels to the U.S.. Upon arrival in the U.S., they are to receive medical benefits from the Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Any refugee who wishes to bring their spouse or children under the age of 21 to the U.S. must fill out Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition. (1) They must fit the following criteria:
- The petitioner must have been granted refugee or asylee status directly in order to enter the U.S. They may not petition if they entered the U.S. by receiving refuge or asylum from a relative.
- The form must be filled out within two years of the refugee’s arrival in the U.S.
- They must remain in refugee or asylee status, or become a permanent U.S. resident by receiving a Green Card. Anyone who has become a U.S. citizen by naturalization cannot petition for a relative to get refugee or asylee status.
- The family relationship must have existed before the refugee entered the U.S. (4)
For the refugee’s spouse, the application process is to:
- File Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition
- Provide proof of status as a refugee or asylee.
- Provide a recent photograph of their spouse.
- Provide a copy of their marriage certificate.
- Provide a copy of any divorce decrees, death certificates, or annulment decrees if they or their spouse had been married before.
- If the refugee or their spouse has changed their name, they must provide legal proof. (5)
For the refugee’s children, the process is to:
- File Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition
- Provide proof of parent’s status as a refugee or asylee.
- Provide a recent photograph of the child.
- Provide a copy of the child's birth certificate showing the parent’s name and the name of the child.
- If the refugee is the father, he must provide a copy of any divorce decrees, death certificates, or annulment decrees that show any previous marriages by the father or the child’s mother were legally terminated.
- If the refugee is the father and was never married to the child's mother, he must provide proof that the child is legitimate by civil authorities, or evidence that a parent-child relationship still exists. (6)
Working in the U.S.
A refugee can begin working once they have arrived in the U.S. Upon arrival they will receive a Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record with their refugee admission stamp. A Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization will be filed upon their arrival, so they can receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). While waiting for their EAD, they can use their Form I-94 to provide proof to employers that they are authorized to work in the U.S. (1)
Filing for a Permanent Residency (Green Card)
All refugees must apply for a Green Card after a year of living in the U.S. They must apply by filing Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence. There is no filing fee for refugees to file Form I-485, nor do refugees have to pay fees for fingerprinting or biometrics. (1)