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Immigration & Naturalization Law

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How Can I Become a Refugee?

U.S. immigration law provides refugee status to certain people due to humanitarian concerns. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a refugee is someone who:

  • Lives outside the U.S.
  • Is of special humanitarian concern
  • Is not resettled in another country
  • Is admissible to the U.S.
  • Demonstrates persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on a protected status.

Grounds for refugees status and asylum status includes a fear of persecution in their home country because of:

  • Race
  • Nationality or nation of origin
  • Religion
  • Membership in a particular social group
  • Political opinion

There are some persecuted individuals who may not qualify for refugee status. This includes anyone who ordered, incited, assisted, or participated in the persecution of others based on race, religion, political or social group, or nationality.

Difference Between Asylum and Refugee

The difference between asylees and refugees is where they currently live. Asylum seekers begin their immigration process within the United States. Refugees request their immigration process while outside the country.

Asylum is the most common way to immigrate to the United States for humanitarian reasons. In 2019, 46,508 people obtained asylee status. The figure was 29,916 for refugees.

In 2019, the countries where the most asylees came from were China, Venezuela, and El Salvador. On the other hand, the most refugees came from the Congo, Myanmar, and Ukraine.

How To Seek Refuge in the United States

The first thing is to obtain a referral for resettlement. This referral can be provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a United States embassy, or a licensed non-governmental organization.

The most common is to contact the UNHCR. To do this, you must contact the UNHCR office of the country to which you wish to move to. Then, you must apply to be considered for the refugee resettlement program to the United States.

Next, the United States Department of State will consider the case. The State Department coordinates with the Resettlement Support Center to:

  • Inform you about the process
  • Prepare your file
  • Initiate background checks

The Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) then makes the final decision. For a final decision, they will:

  • Conduct an in-person interview where you currently reside
  • Take your fingerprints
  • Determine if you qualify as a refugee
  • Determine you are admissible to the United States

The process will also include security checks. When making the final decision, U.S. government officials will consider the conditions in the home country, and evaluate your credibility.

Are There Limits on the Number of Refugees in the U.S.?

Yes, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) gives the president the power to set limits on the number of refugees admitted each year.

In 2021, President Joe Biden raised the refugee cap to 62,500 for the year. This came after former President Donald Trump set the lowest refugee limit in history. The former president also suspended the refugee resettlement process from 11 countries, including Syrian refugees and people from North Korea.

Does My Family Qualify as Refugees?

As part of the refugee process, you can include your spouse, unmarried children under the age of 21, and in some cases, other family members. Same-sex spouses who are legally married can also be included. Unmarried same-sex partners may also qualify in some cases.

You may also file a refugee/asylee relative petition for your family members after you arrive in the United States. Generally, you have to file the petition within two years of your arrival.

Arrival in the United States

If you are approved as a refugee, you will have a medical examination, cultural orientation, help with travel plans, and a loan for travel to the U.S. You will work with the Department of Health and Human Services to get social assistance and economic benefits.

Can I Work as a Refugee?

Yes, the status of refugee allows you to work. When you are admitted to the U.S., you receive a Form I-94 with a refugee admission stamp that authorizes you to work until you can receive the Employment Authorization Document (EAD).

Applying for Permanent Resident Status

After one year has passed since you entered the United States, you can apply for a green card to continue working and obtain permanent residence. After five years of holding a green card, you can apply for U.S. citizenship.

After receiving a green card, you can legally remain in the U.S., even if the conditions in your home country improve. To be eligible for a green card as a refugee, there are several requirements, including:

  • Filing an I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjustment of Status
  • Being admitted to the U.S. as a refugee and not losing your status
  • Being physically present in the U.S. for at least one year

Your spouse or unmarried refugee children under the age of 21 may also be able to apply for green cards. Contact an experienced immigration attorney for advice.