Questions and Answers: Refugees

Who is a Refugee?

A refugee is a person who has fled his or her country of origin because of past persecution or a fear of future persecution based upon race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. If the person is not in the United States, he or she may apply for inclusion in the U.S. refugee program. If the person is already in the United States, he or she may apply for the U.S. asylum program.

A refugee does not include a person who has left his or her home only to seek a more prosperous life, also known as an economic migrant. People fleeing civil wars and natural disasters may not be eligible for resettlement under U.S. law. However, they may fall within the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For more information about UNHCR, see the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) page.

Which Refugees are Eligible for Resettlement in the United States?

Each year, the United States resettles a limited number of refugees. Refugees may be eligible for a USCIS interview for resettlement in the United States if:

  • UNHCR, or the U.S. Embassy, or a non-governmental organization refers them to the United States for resettlement.
  • They are members of specified groups with special characteristics in certain countries determined by the United States.
  • They have an anchor relative in the United States who is a refugee or asylee.

Generally, refugees must be outside their homelands to be eligible for the U.S. refugee program; however the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) processes refugees in their home countries in a few places.

Even if an applicant is determined by USCIS to be a refugee, refugees must be admissible to the United States.  An applicant can be found “inadmissible” to the United States for a variety of reasons, including criminal, health, or security-related grounds. 

Ineligibility for the U.S. refugee program does not necessarily prevent eligibility for UNHCR protection or resettlement in other countries.

Are Refugees in Urgent Situations Eligible for Expedited Processing?

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is committed to processing refugee applications as quickly as possible. However, there may be instances when an applicant is facing a particularly urgent situation, such as an acute medical or protection concern that would warrant expedited processing of the case. Applicants who believe they meet these criteria may contact the local Resettlement Support Center handling their case.

How Can I Find Out If I Am Eligible For Resettlement in the United States?

If you believe that you might be eligible for resettlement in the United States, you may make your interest known to the nearest UNHCR office. If you have relatives in the United States, they should contact the nearest refugee resettlement agency for advice and help in preparing the necessary forms in support of your application.

What Kind Of Processing Can I Expect Under The United States Refugee Program?

The U.S. Department of State Resettlement Service Centers (RSCs) carry out most of the casework preparation for refugee eligibility interviews. The RSCs pre-screen applicants, help prepare the applications for USCIS, initiate background security checks, and arrange medical examinations for those refugees approved by USCIS.

Following USCIS approval, the processing entity also asks for the names and addresses of any relatives in the United States, for details on the person's work history and job skills, and for any special educational or medical needs of the refugee and accompanying family members, in order to determine the best resettlement arrangements for the refugee.

The International Organization for Migration generally arranges transportation to the United States on a loan basis. Refugees are expected to repay the cost of their transportation once they are established in the United States.  Individual refugees or their relatives may pay for transportation costs in advance.

What Family Members May Accompany Me To The United States If I Am Approved?

Family members that may accompany you to the United States include your spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 who were with you at the refugee interview.

If your spouse or unmarried children under the age of 21 were not with you at the time of your interview, they will be able to follow you to the United States, but you will have to file a Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition, for each of them.

In either case, your dependent relative must also be otherwise admissible to the United States. Other relatives may qualify for resettlement in the United States if they meet the U.S. refugee criteria with their own claims.

Your case may include your spouse, child (unmarried and under 21years of age), and in some limited circumstances, other family members. You may include a same-sex spouse in your application provided that you and your spouse are legally married. As a general matter, USCIS looks to the law of the place where the marriage took place when determining whether it is valid for immigration law purposes. Same-sex partners who are not married but who are qualified  to access the U.S. Refugee Admissions under one of the three designated worldwide processing priorities may have their cases cross-referenced so that they can be interviewed at the same time and, if approved by USCIS, resettled in the same geographic area in the United States. 

How Can I Report My New Address?

You are required to notify USCIS within 10 days of changing your address. You may file Form AR-11, Change of Address, or change your address online. See the Change of Address Online page to report electronically. 

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