How do refugees come to America?

Less than 80,000 refugees participated in the U.S. Resettlement Program (USRP) last year.  It is a lengthy, difficult process.  Below are the steps a refugee must take to resettle in the United States:

  1. Becoming a Refugee

Refugees flee their homes, businesses, farms, and communities in order to escape war and persecution.  Often refugees flees to save their or their families’ lives.  They rarely know how long it will be before it is safe to return home and they often have no time to plan the departure or pack appropriately.  Family records, professional documents, diplomas, photographs, and other precious items are often left behind.

Seeking Legal Refugee Status
In order to receive official refugee status in a country of asylum, an individual has to have left his or her home country due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social group affiliation, or political opinion.  The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is usually responsible for awarding legal refugee status.  In addition, UNHCR often offers refugees protection, assistance, and alternative legal and travel documents.

Seeking Resettlement
UNHCR refers only about 1 percent of all refugees for resettlement in a third country.  Only when all efforts to either help refugees return home or settle permanently in the country of asylum have failed does third country resettlement become the option of last resort.  The following countries have resettlement programs: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.  Other countries accept individual refugees on an ad hoc basis.  Family ties, trade skills, professional abilities, language facility, and various other factors are considered by UNHCR when matching a refugee with a resettlement country.

  1. Seeking Admission to the U.S. Resettlement Program(USRP)

Referral to the USRP
Only refugees who have been referred by UNHCR or by the U.S. embassy in the country of asylum are eligible for the USRP.  Usually, a family is referred together as a single group.  The Department of State’s Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) oversees this program.  The State Department develops application criteria, refugee admission ceilings, and presents eligible cases to a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), for  adjudication. The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) describes the process of application for admission to the United States as a refugee in 9 FAM Part IV Appendix O.

Refugees who meet the criteria for application to the USRP are interviewed by a USCIS officer who travels to the country of asylum.  The U.S. Department of State contracts resettlement and/or nongovernmental organizations to assist refugees who may need help preparing their resettlement application forms.  The application typically consists of USCIS Form I-590, family tree, and biographical information.  The USCIS officer decides whether the applicant is a refugee as defined under U.S. law.  An individual’s designation as a refugee by UNHCR does not guarantee admission to the USRP.

Refugees whose applications for U.S. resettlement receive USCIS approval are matched with an American resettlement organization that will facilitate their resettlement to the United States.  Most of these nonprofit organizations rely on professional and volunteer staff to assist refugees in the resettlement process.  If rejected, the applicant has thirty days to file a motion to reconsider the denial with the nearest USCIS district office.  Generally, a motion is considered only if it contains new information not available at the original interview.

  1. Refugee Resettlement in the United States

Being Matched with an American Resettlement Organization
Detailed information on all refugees approved for resettlement in the United States is sent to the Refugee Data Center (RDC) in New York.  RDC matches refugees with one of eleven voluntary agencies that provide reception and placement services for refugees coming to the United States.

Pre-travel Activities
In order to ensure that a refugee understands that everyone living in America is expected to be self-sufficient and that no refugee should be an undue burden to American society, he or she must complete several additional steps before traveling to the United States.  These activities are undertaken concurrently and can take from 2 months to 2 years to complete:

  • Assurance process: The American resettlement organization must “assure” the Department of State that it is prepared to receive each matched refugee.  This “assurance” is a written guarantee that various basic services will be provided to the refugee and any accompanying family members in the initial resettlement phase.  At this time, the resettlement organization determines where in the United States the refugee will be resettled based on the availability of housing, employment, needed services, readiness of host community, and a variety of other factors.  However, if a refugee has a relative in the United States, every effort is made to resettle the refugee near that relative.  Refugees do not have to have U.S. sponsors to be resettled in the United States.
  • Medical clearance: Prior to coming to the United States, all refugees are medically screened by a health care professional working for the U.S. government.  The screening identifies medical conditions that require follow-up or constitute a public health concern.  A few serious conditions may render a refugee ineligible for entry into the United States; however, a waiver may be available.  After being “medically cleared,” a refugee must enter the United States within one year.
  • Security clearance: All refugees must undergo a security clearance procedure prior to coming to the United States.  The level of clearance needed depends on the refugee’s country of origin.  In most cases, the refugee’s name is checked against the FBI’s database of known terrorists and undesirables, as well as the State Department’s database of people who have been denied visas to enter the United States in the past.
  • Cultural orientation: All refugees receive some form of cultural orientation prior to coming to the United States.  Most programs emphasize the importance of self-sufficiency in American society, as well as what to expect in the initial resettlement phase.  Classes range in length from three hours to several days.

Travel to the United States
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) arranges air travel for most U.S.-bound refugees.  Before a refugee leaves the country of asylum, he or she signs a promissory note and agrees to repay the U.S. government for travel costs. Upon receiving necessary travel details from IOM, the American resettlement organization makes arrangements for the refugee’s arrival.

United States Arrival and Reception
After meeting, welcoming, and assisting the refugee at the airport, the resettlement organization begins the process of helping the refugee become settled in his or her new community.

First Steps in U.S. Resettlement
Most newly arrived refugees desperately want a permanent home.  Resettlement organizations work hard to find housing for each refugee that is safe, sanitary, of a sufficient size, affordable, and accessible to public transportation.  The American resettlement organization that assured a refugee’s case is responsible for assisting the refugee in the initial resettlement phase.  Each resettlement organization provides a variety of services to promote early self-sufficiency and cultural adjustment.  The following activities take place within the first thirty days of arrival:

  • Application for a Social Security number: Refugees need social security numbers in order to seek employment or enroll their children in school.  All refugees register with the Social Security Administration as soon as possible.
  • School registration: All refugee children are enrolled in school upon arrival in the United States.
  • Medical evaluation: Even though refugees are medically screened prior to entering the United States, each is examined again by medical professionals in their new communities.  At this time, refugees are familiarized with their local health care system.  They also receive needed inoculations and other necessary treatments.
  • English language training: Refugees often do not speak any English when they arrive.  Learning English is an essential step to becoming self-sufficient.  Voluntary agencies often provide English Language Training (ELT) courses or help refugees find available classes in their new community.
  1. Becoming a Contributing Member of the Community

Finding Employment
Refugees enter the United States with authorization to work.  The U.S. government expects a working-age refugee to find a job within six months of arrival.  Resettlement organizations often have employment specialists who help refugees with their job search.  Many states have a designated agency that receives state funds to help refugees find work.  This function is usually coordinated by the State Refugee Coordinator.

Gaining Permanent Residency
Refugees can apply for Permanent Resident Alien (PRA) status (commonly known as a “green card”) after they have been in the United States for one year.

Becoming a Citizen
Refugees can apply for U.S. citizenship after residing in the United States for five years.  Many resettlement organizations have citizenship programs that assist, guide, and encourage refugees through the naturalization process.

Building a New Life
Refugees spend many years overcoming past trauma, locating family members, adjusting to American culture, building careers, raising families, finding their first dream home, and creating a new life for themselves in the United States.

More details on particular aspects of this process can be obtained from these agencies: