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What is Refugee Status and Who Qualifies?

Since 1975, over 3 million refugees from around the world have made their home in the United States, thanks to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

A refugee is defined as an individual who flees his/her home country for fear of violence or persecution due to race, religion, political opinions, or affiliation in a particular social group. They might also be civilians fleeing war. Refugees who have already fled their country of origin and are currently in the United States, legally or illegally, are known as asylees.

The United States government divides refugees into three categories:

  1. Priority One – individuals with compelling persecution needs.
  2. Priority Two – individuals from certain groups selected by the Department of State. These groups may change as global conditions develop.
  3. Priority Three – close relatives of refugees who have already settled in the United States.

Applying for Refugee Resettlement

Resettlement involves refugees being selected and transferred to a state or country that has agreed to admit them. Once here, refugees are granted permanent residence status and are protected against refoulement (the forcible relocation back to the country they fled from). In some cases, refugees may also have the opportunity to become naturalized citizens of their host country.

To apply for refugee settlement in the U.S., you must first register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the country you have fled to. First, UNHCR will determine if you are a refugee. If you qualify, UNHCR will work to find the best solution for you: whether you will return safely to your home country, be integrated locally, or be resettled in a third country. UNHCR selects cases in order of most vulnerable and select the countries for resettlement.

UNHCR accepts resettlement submissions that fall into the following categories:

  • Legal and/or Physical Protection Needs – refugees who are still under threat of arrest, refoulement, or physical harm in their country of asylum.
  • Women and Girls at Risk – women or girls who are at risk of or have already suffered problems particular to their gender, such as sexual abuse, torture, and other forms of exploitation.
  • Children and Adolescents at Risk – children under the age of 18 who are unaccompanied and/or separated from their families.
  • Survivors of Torture and/or Violence – refugees who have experienced torture or violence either in their country of origin or their country of asylum, who may have lingering physiological or psychological effects due to torture, and who may face further violence.
  • Medical Needs – refugees who have been diagnosed with life-threatening or possibly irreversible medical conditions, who cannot obtain treatment in their country of origin or asylum.
  • Family Reunification – when refugees are reuniting with a family member (spouse, parent, children, or other dependent relatives) who has already been resettled.
  • Lack of Foreseeable Alternative Durable Solutions – when no better options other than resettlement are available.

Exemptions to refugee status include:

  • Those with contagious diseases
  • Those who have lied on previous visa applications
  • Smugglers
  • Those who have been deported previously

It is possible to obtain a waiver if your application is denied due to an exemption.

The Application Process

First, UNHCR will screen you and record your biographical and biometric data, such as facial scans and fingerprints. The U.S. Government will follow up with its own screening process.

Your case will be referred to a Resettlement Support Center (RSC). Some individuals, such as relatives of asylees or refugees already in the United States, can apply directly to the RSC. The RSC will hold an interview with you and collect your biographic information and any relevant documentation. This information will then be entered into the Department of State’s Worldwide Refugee Admission Processing System (WRAPS) in order to check and cross-reference the data before being sent to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and other national security agencies to conduct background checks and an in-person interview before approving you for resettlement.

After receiving approval, you will be required to undergo a health screening to identify any medical needs you may have. Those with contagious diseases are not allowed entry into the United States. The RSC will also request a “sponsorship assurance” from a U.S.-based resettlement agency. If you already have a relative living in the U.S., the Refugee Processing Center and a private voluntary agency will do their best to settle you as close to your relative as possible.

This entire process, from UNHCR referral to your arrival in the United States, may take anywhere between 18-24 months, depending on your unique circumstances.

Once various screenings and assurance of placement has been completed, RSCs work with the International Organization for Migration to arrange travel for the refugee to the U.S.

Recent Developments

The previous annual cap for refugee admissions to the U.S. under President Obama was set at 110,000 refugees in 2016. In October 2017, the cap was lowered by President Trump to less than half that at 45,000 refugees, the lowest since the resettlement program was adopted in 1980. Beginning January 2018, refugees from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, which are considered “high-risk countries,” may be subject to additional security screenings.

Applying for refugee status, for yourself or a loved one, can be a harrowing and tiring process. Our knowledgeable New York immigration attorneys at Pollack, Pollack, Isaac & DeCicco, LLP, can help ease the strain and guide you through this process as smoothly as possible. Call our law offices today at 212-203-4795, or contact us online.


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