Refugee Status Forms

Under U.S. law, refugees are people who seek to come to the United States from another country where they have been persecuted. Unlike asylees, who seek relief from persecution from within the United States or at the border, those seeking refugee status begin their journey toward residency from outside the United States and, usually, outside their home country.

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Table of Contents

Annual Admissions

While there are no limits on the number of people who may receive asylum each year, U.S. law gives the president, after an “appropriate consultation” with Congress, the ability to set the number of refugees admitted for the coming year in what is known as the “Presidential Determination.” In the last four years, this number has declined considerably. For fiscal year 2017, the Presidential Determination was set at 110,000; for fiscal year 2021, which began Oct. 1, 2020, it was just 15,000. 

Once granted refugee status in the United States, refugees are eligible to work and attend school. Principal applicants may apply on behalf of themselves, their spouse, and unmarried children under 21; as noted below, it is also possible to apply on behalf of these people later in the process if you have somehow been separated. After a year in the United States, refugees must apply for a green card for permanent residency.

Processing

Because those seeking refugee status begin the process abroad, the initial stages are overseen by the Department of State, not USCIS. Intake of potential refugees will usually be handled by a Resettlement Support Center that may be staffed by U.S. embassy personnel, or by people from a non-governmental organization with whom the United States has contracted. Staff at these centers will interview potential refugees, screen them and gather information about their claims, which they will pass on to USCIS, who decides whether a person is eligible for refugee status.  In other words, this initial stage is separate from the ultimate determination of whether someone is a refugee. For more information about support centers, and to find one that might be able to assist with a refugee claim, click here.

Intake agents at resettlement support centers rely on the following priorities to process applicants:

First priority

Cases identified by the United States, or certain non-governmental organizations. These are specific, individual people whose personal history indicates that they are at risk of grave harm if returned to their country of origin. In the past, the U.S. government relied more on the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to make these determinations, but in recent years this guidance has been less used.

Second priority

Groups thought to be at risk. These may be defined by nationality, ethnicity, membership in a clan, or in other ways. They do not need a referral from the embassy or a non-governmental organization. Like most, they are typically processed outside their home country. Some refugees from countries in Eastern Europe may begin processing inside their home countries.

Third priority

Family reunification. To be eligible for a Priority Three processing, someone who has already been admitted to the United States must apply on their behalf. This petitioner, sometimes known as an “anchor,” must be at least 18 years old, and have been admitted to the United States within the past five years as either an asylee or a holder of refugee status. Petitioners may apply on behalf of parents, spouses and unmarried children under 21. In exceptional circumstances, it may also be available for people who are not related by blood, but were part of the same household. For the current fiscal year, Priority 3 processing is available only to people in the following countries:

Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria

There have been many changes to Priority 3 processing in the last decade. The process now requires that the petitioner file what is known as an Affidavit of Relationship. These forms, copies of which may be seen by Googling “affidavit of relationship” but are currently not available as a link on any government website, may not be submitted directly by the petitioner. Instead, the petitioner must contact his or her local refugee resettlement agency to begin the process; if you fill out and submit a form on your own, it will be automatically rejected. (In some cases, there are affidavit of relationship forms specific to a particular country, which the resettlement agency will help applicants select.) Resettlement agencies are nonprofit groups, many of them linked to religious organizations, scattered throughout the country that have contracts with the Department of State to help process refugees. To find the resettlement agency nearest you, click here. Please note that in some cases, both the petitioner who filed an Affidavit of Relationship and the beneficiary may at some point be required to submit DNA samples in order to prove that the family relationship is real. This would not take place until after the beneficiary has been resettled, and there will be no fee for those required to submit to DNA testing.

Finally, please note that Priority 3 processing is different from filing an I-730. More explanation of the Form I-730 is included below. 

Eligibility

The screening or processing described above is handled by various groups based outside of the country. Often it will be the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, but it may be a non-governmental organization such as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. These groups handle processing, while adjudications are handled by USCIS refugee officers. Along with meeting the definition of a refugee, those seeking refugee status must meet three additional requirements:

Not be “firmly settled in another country”

As mentioned above, refugee status is generally for people who lack a stable living situation. Someone is considered to be firmly resettled if he or she passes through another country and receives an offer of permanent residence or citizenship there. There are two exceptions. The first is for those who are just passing through a country while fleeing persecution, remain only for enough time to arrange for continuing travel, and do not establish significant ties while there. And second, a person will not be considered “firmly resettled” even if he or she receives an offer residency in another country if the “conditions of residency” were so restrictive that the person could not really be considered resettled.

Be admissible to the United States

Many of the traditional limitations on “admissibility” as it is used by USCIS, such as a lack of proper documentation or being unable to demonstrate economic self-sufficiency (the so-called “public charge” rule) do not apply to those seeking to become refugees.

Certain public health concerns may prevent someone from earning refugee status. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer considers being HIV positive a “communicable disease of public health significance” and has revised listings with regard to drug addiction and other conditions within the last five years to better comport with the understanding of modern medicine. For a complete list of health conditions that may disqualify a refugee, click here

There are several “categorical bars” to refugee status, which prevent someone from earning it even if he or she otherwise qualifies. These bars mostly have to do with having participated in the persecution or torture of others in the past. Affiliation with terrorism is another and, unlike the direction in public health, it has gotten stricter in recent years; collateral support, like providing a safe house for someone, may be grounds for disqualification. However, the government has also specifically defined certain groups as not being terrorists for the purpose of the legislation, even if their actions might otherwise meet the definition. Most of these are in Burma/Myanmar, but it also includes the Tibetan Mustangs, the Cuban Alzados, the Vietnamese Montagnards, groups affiliated with the Hmong, and the African National Congress in South Africa.

 Be determined to be of “special humanitarian concern” to the United States

Along with establishing the number of refugees to be admitted, the annual Presidential Determination also establishes “processing priorities,” which help determine which of the people in the world who meet the definition of refugee are “of special humanitarian concern” and will eventually be resettled. Note that “special humanitarian concern” has two functions or meanings for refugees. Being of special humanitarian concern to the United States may increase the speed with which an applicant’s refugee claim is referred for processing; for example, Iranian religious minorities are consistently included in the Presidential determination as being of special humanitarian concern. Then, once an application for refugee status is before USCIS, it is considered again, in determining whether the applicant is in fact a refugee.

Adjudication

To apply for refugee status, fill out Form I-590. Typically, the refugee assistance center where you began processing, or someone in the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, can provide you with the form and assistance filling it out. Like most immigration forms, Form I-590 has extensive requests for biographical information. Standards for evaluating the I-590 in this regard are somewhat more relaxed than for many other USCIS forms, out of recognition that many refugees may need to flee in a hurry and may not have access to these documents. There is no fee to file Form I-590. After the Form I-590 has been processed, USCIS will arrange for a refugee officer to interview the applicant abroad.

Along with evaluating the applicant’s claim for refugee status, the interview is one of numerous layers of national security protections that USCIS and other agencies have built into the refugee process. If there is something about your application that USCIS or another U.S. agency deems to present a security risk, you may have to go through additional questioning or experience additional delays in the processing of your application.

Final Steps

If approved, USCIS will refer the refugee to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, which will connect the refugee with one of nine U.S.-based resettlement agencies. Refugees automatically receive some government benefits and assistance on arriving in the United States, but a regional center must demonstrate that it can “receive” the refugee and help settle him or her. The resettlement center in the country where the refugee has applied, will traditionally help with travel arrangements to the United States. If not covered by a charitable organization, refugees are eligible for interest-free travel loans from the International Organization of Migration.

On traveling to the United States, refugees will be subject to additional security screenings from Customs and Border Patrol. Where in the United States they are settled will be determined by one of the U.S. resettlement centers. If the refugee initially qualified for third priority processing, the location in the United States of the person who filed the affidavit will be taken into account.

As mentioned at the beginning of this entry, a principal refugee applicant may submit one application that covers both himself or herself, as well as a spouse and unmarried children under 21. However, for various reasons, including being separated by conflict or disaster, it may not be possible for all members of a family of refugees to immigrate at once. If the refugee wishes to apply on behalf of family who have been left behind, he or she may file Form I-730. Form I-730 must be filed within two years of the refugee’s arrival in the United States, and one form is necessary for each person that the refugee hopes to bring to the country. An approved I-730 does not guarantee that a visa will be available for the beneficiary. However, unlike the affidavit process with Priority 3 processing, the beneficiary of an I-730 need not be a  refugee, meaning the form may be useful if the relative has resettled or conditions abroad have changed.